December 17, 2018


As a scientific achievement, as a demonstration of cool nerve, or as an example of control of brain and muscle, cultivated to the point where it becomes instinctive, Wilbur Wright’s flight up the Hudson on October 4 is memorable. But the leap by which popular imagination flies to the interpretation that this performance establishes commercial supremacy of the aeroplane is purely fantastic. Emotion has run away with reason.


We do not query the interest or excellence of the Wrights’ mechanical achievement. There is no reason apparently why they should not vastly better any recorded performance—fly thousands of feet high, or hundreds of miles in distance. Our skepticism is only as to the utilitarian value of any present or possible achievement of the aeroplane. We do not believe it will ever be a commercial vehicle at all. We do not believe it will find any very large place in the world of sport. We do not believe its military importance is as great as is commonly supposed, or will extend (except accidentally) beyond the range of scouting and courier service. Even here it remains wholly indeterminate how much (except mutual destruction) can actually be accomplished by men in flying-machines, if other men in other flying-machines are trying to prevent the accomplishment. And even the attempt must always be limited by the absolute dependence of aerial navigation upon weather conditions which in most places and in average seasons exist during only a minor fraction of the time.

The Engineering Magazine, 1909. Text in bold highlighted by Matt Novak of PaleoFuture, in a post headlined, “Doubts About the Airplane in 1909: ‘Emotion Has Run Away With Reason.’

As Clarke’s First Law stipulates, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

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