Three-Dimensional Visionaries

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by Bruce J. Holmes

I have a full-scale copy of a map, originally printed in 1795 by A. Arrowsmith, "Hydrographer to H.R.H the Prince of Wales." I am captivated by the title: "A Map Exhibiting all the New Discoveries in the Interior Parts of North America, Inscribed by Permission to the Honorable Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay In testimony of their liberal Communications. Additions to 1811." During the 2003 bicentennial events around the 1803 "hike" by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, my wife and I stood, mesmerized, before the original of the map in the University of Virginia archives. Through some patience and persistence, I obtained printing rights and have a full-sized version of the map in our foyer.

Thumbnail image for Arrowsmith Map-thumb-300x232-41826.jpgIn my view, the map is quite simply the most significant document in the history of the North American world. This is the very map that Meriwether and Thomas Jefferson poured over when they were together in the White House, contemplating the possibility of connecting two dots in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, in the interest of commerce. The two dots included St. Louis in the Missouri Territory and the mouth of the Columbia River in the West, as mapped by Captain Cooke. What lay between was mysterious, exciting, and rich in possibilities. The possibility that a trade route could be discovered motivated the investment in one of the nation's first of many grand adventures (on equal with the journey to the moon two centuries later).

What makes the story so interesting to me is the repeating pattern across the centuries as one president after another has dealt with the mandate for mobility. The mandate seems perennial, whether in the epoch of canals, rails, highways, air travel, or commercial space travel. The role each administration has played in the advancements of our mobility seems to swing back and forth between that of visionary and that of caretaker.

Thomas Jefferson's mind is intriguing on the topic of air mobility. On Apr. 28, 1784, Jefferson writes to Dr. Philip Turpin of Annapolis:

DEAR SIR

Supposing you may not have received intelligence to be relied on as to the reality & extent of the late discovery of traversing the air in balloons...

Jefferson goes on to explain with Wright Brothers-like detail, the volume, energy density, and lifting capacity of the variety of experiments that led to the Montgolfier Brothers manned flight demonstration in Lyons, France in 1783.

In the letter he speculates on the prospects for aerial navigation, quoted directly here:

1. transportation of commodities under some circumstances.
2. traversing deserts, countries possessed by an enemy, or ravaged by infectious disorders, pathless & inaccessible mountains.
3. conveying intelligence into a beseiged place, or perhaps enterprising on it, reconnoitring an army &c.
4. throwing new lights on the thermometer, barometer, hygrometer, rain, snow, hail, wind & other phenomena of which the Atmosphere is the theatre.
5. the discovery of the pole which is but one day's journey in a balloon from where the ice has hitherto stopped adventurers.
6. raising weights; lightening ships over bars.
7. housebreaking, smuggling &c. some of these objects are ludicrous, others serious, important & probable.

Nine years after he wrote this letter, Jefferson witnessed the first manned balloon flight in America in 1793. Here was a man fully capable of vision in three dimensions, in a world of two-dimensional reality.

Jefferson and George Washington might qualify as the last three-dimensional visionaries. It is noteworthy that the first "air mail" in the U.S. was a letter from George Washington carried by balloonist Pierre Blanchard in that 1793 flight. The letter contained some visionary thinking:

[from] George Washington, President of the United States of America, .... recommend to all citizens of the United States, and others, that in his [Blanchard's] passage, descent, return or journeying elsewhere, .... they receive and aid him .... to establish and advance an art, in order to make it useful to mankind in general.

We've also had White House visionaries for all of the two-dimensional modes, canals, rail and roads: Washington, father of the C&O Canal System, and Lincoln, champion of the Transcontinental Railroad. In modern times, we are more familiar with the visionary insights of President Eisenhower on the possibilities for an interstate highway system, and now we have one. While Kennedy deserves credit for his Moon Shot vision, we are left with a lot of space between cars and the edge of the atmosphere.

By necessity, other presidents took on roles of caretakers of the new and expanding aviation industry: Calvin Coolidge, Air Commerce Act (1926); FDR, Civil Aeronautics Act (1938); Truman, Federal Airport Act (1946); Eisenhower, Modernization Act (1957) and the establishment of the FAA (1958). The time has come for the White House to move beyond a caretaker role and once again assume the role of visionary in three-dimensions. Transportation system innovations that connect more of our communities by air, done affordably and safely, would decouple economic opportunity from the amazing but shrinking hub-and-spoke system invented in the last century. The coming technological waves in automation, autonomy, alternative propulsion (including electric airplanes), nano-engineered materials, and complexity science-derived tools for managing swarming in the airspace, together with other advancements on our doorstep hold fantastical promise.

The first line in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is useful today in framing the imperative for attention to our nation's productivity (output per unit of labor) and the part played by efficient mobility (which does not seem to be improving over the past few decades). As recently noted , our productivity wave of the last two decades is receding. Back to Smith, who noted:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.

...and the title of the third chapter is

"That the Division of Labour is Limited by the Extent of the Market"

Connecting these dots suggests that being able to travel greater distances cost effectively, means that the "extent of the market" can be increased, and therefore, more people can increase the division of labor and specialization in more places.

The value of vision from the White House lies in legitimizing out-of-the-box thinking, investing, researching, and marketing innovations. Innovations that without such legitimacy, "...bang up against the old ways of doing things," as I quoted from B. Vastag in a previous blog on this site this week. Air mobility has untapped potential for spreading transportation's contribution to productivity across more of our nation's population. The U.S. is investing, appropriately, in improving the existing system of the largest airports and in modernizing airspace management. Those current plans are vital, but largely make an existing system perform better. The current plans do not adequately stimulate innovation, for example, in more widely distributed air mobility and the effects that could be seen on productivity. Such an opportunity would be propelled by three-dimensional vision from the White House.

We now need a new "Arrowsmith map," one that does not show just rivers, mountains, and roads. Instead, it is a map of the highways of the sky -- skyways that open both economic and recreational opportunities for the common citizen. I believe Jefferson would approve.

Bruce J. Holmes, retired from his NASA career in public sector entrepreneurialism, is now practicing the art in the private sector as CEO, NextGen AeroSciences.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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