Sudden Greatness


Declared by Presidential Proclomation as Wright Brother Day, December 17th commemorates the first powered human flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. The Wright Flyer was made of spruce, hand-carved propellers, and an engine block cast in lightweight aluminum, utilizing an early version of a modern fuel injector. The Wrights finally made two flights into a freezing headwind gusting: Orville made the first flight of 120 feet in 12 seconds, at a speed of 6.8 miles per hour.

Today, air travel is a ubiquitous practice, an essentially banal feature of modern life more frequently subject to irritation and kvetching rather than marvel and wonderment. But in the decades following that single moment in the cold of Kitty Hawk, air travel was a epochal moment of human innovation. "In fifteen years, air travel has superimposed itself upon civilization," wrote Kenneth Chafee McIntosh in The Atlantic in September 1921. "Its future is limitless."

Aviation has attained in fifteen years a degree of progress which can hardly be matched by any other epoch-making invention in centuries. One hundred and eighteen years since the Clermont, one hundred and fifty since Franklin's kite, and aviation is already as advanced, relatively, as steam and electricity. John Hawkins and Francis Drake revolutionized naval warfare by fighting broadside instead of head-on, and once for all made the gun the master of surface ships; and the all-big-gun battleship, throwing a heavy broadside, is the legitimate child of Drake's weatherly little Pelican. Three hundred and sixty years were required to produce the modern battleship after Drake had shown the way; and there is yet no more difference visible than already distinguishes the army's new Verville-Packard from the original Wright airplane hanging in the National Museum at Washington. Orville Wright's forty-mile speed has become three miles a minute, and the end is not yet. His one-thousand-feet altitude has become seven miles, and there halts momentarily while we safeguard the gasoline and oil system against the bitter cold of the black upper air. His twenty-two minute, eighteen-mile endurance has become a screaming leap from continent to continent, and air-planes now cross half a world with little comment.

But McIntosh recognized that all technologies put to use for human betterment could also be used for human malevolence. The prospects for warfare were just as glaring as those for commercial activity:

Eight years of devoted, perilous, quiet work; seven years of feverish development--that is the history of aviation; and it is to-day probably the most far-reaching existing influence on future history. Gone forever are the sickly, thirsting expeditionary columns, which in the past have punished raiding savages in the jungles and deserts of the world at hideous cost. A few men, a few air-planes, a few days, and the chastisement is complete. Gone is the immunity of colliers and repair-ships lagging in the wake of the sea-borne fleets; arid gone is the safety of the island cities.

"The future of all the world is in the air -- a future either glorious or terrible," wrote McIntosh to The Atlantic's readers. "Your generation and mine will decide which it shall be."

Read the rest of McIntosh's "Sudden Greatness."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.

Image: First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers, Wikimedia Commons.