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Earthdate 2003-12-21


A discussion on a space science discussion list has arisen concerning Impearls' earlier piece on the BBC and the anniversary of flight (permalink).  The thread, entitled “Beware Consensus Science,” began this way (links converted):

Case in point
and the analysis (permalink)

Thanks to the poster for the link to the BBC article, which I hadn't seen.  What I'd viewed was the BBC broadcast, and since I didn't tape it at the time, nor (since I hadn't initially planned to respond to it) did I think to take notes, reviewing the BBC written piece provides a good sanity check.  It's clear that the indicated article in Impearls was in essense correct (the Brazilians/BBC considered the Wrights' flight to be invalid for two reasons similar to what was described), with a minor difference:  Impearls' piece said they regarded the Wrights' flight as invalid in the second instance because the flight took place under “ideal conditions” (i.e., taking off into a headwind), whereas the BBC article actually said “favourable weather conditions” — not a significant distinction.

Having the BBC article allows its words to be considered in detail.  Here's the gist of their argument:

Others accept that the Wrights probably did fly in 1903.  But they say take-off was only possible because of favourable weather conditions.

“The Americans got off the ground because there were strong headwinds,” says Rodrigo Moura.  “Santos Dumont took off, flew and landed without any outside help.  His was the first truly autonomous flight.”

As mentioned before, it's true the Wrights' first flights in December 1903 took off into a headwind — just as all airplanes try to do today.  It's still flight.  (The Wrights did take off from a stationary start though; compare with the Smithsonian's funded attempt at flight: launching from a powerful catapult!)  Beyond that, however, as previously noted, during 1904 the Wright brothers performed 105 flights, including takeoffs into still air, and in one case flew 5 minutes 4 seconds over a circular course of 2.75 miles (or 4.43 km).  The Wrights performed further experiments in 1905.  During that same time period (up to 1905, according to Encyclopædia Britannica), Alberto Santos-Dumont worked in France on gasoline-powered airships. 1  When he did migrate to heavier-than-air craft, his first flight (in October 1906) according to the BBC spanned a mere 60 meters, and while Britannica reports the next month he managed 220 meters in 21 seconds, that's still far short of the 2.75 miles in 5 minutes 4 seconds that the Wrights had already accomplished more than two years earlier.  It's no contest.

Here's what a follow-up poster had to say, in reply to the previous poster's “Case in point”:

The second article [i.e., Impearls'] seemed a bit ranty in the sense that I got no feeling whatsoever that the BBC Article was putting the Wright Brother's flight in doubt; actually, my feeling was that the article portrayed the Santos-Dumont cult as a kind of exotic phenomenon of mass delusion.

I quite disagree.  The BBC piece gave no indication of the slightest criticism or condescension towards Santos-Dumont or his modern-day Brazilian enthusiasts.  Rather it's the Wright brothers who are explicitly criticized for deigning to work in secret, as indeed the poster above buys into in his argument below.  This aspect of the development and demonstrated capabilities of the Wrights' aircraft is irrelevant to the question of who flew first?

In fact, the BBC article adds to the negative tone by even saying that Santos-Dumont was “disillusioned” by the Wright Brothers flights — something that I have never heard of and that smells of dramatization.

According to the BBC piece itself, in 1908 Wilbur Wright flew rings around Santos-Dumont, i.e.:  “He proceeded to break many of the Brazilian's aviation records.”  As Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith put it, writing in Britannica: 2

Wilbur made the first public flight of the new machines at a racecourse near Le Mans, France, on Aug. 8, 1908; he continued his exhibition flights at Auvours nearby, to the end of 1908.  In those five months Wilbur made more than 100 flights, was airborne for more than 25 hours, took passengers up on some 60 occasions, and made 7 flights exceeding an hour's duration, ending with a record flight of 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Such stunning achievements, plus the Wrights' clear priority in time, possibly did disconcert Alberto somewhat — but as Britannica notes, not so much as to prevent him from producing, in 1909, “his famous ‘Demoiselle’ or ‘Grasshopper’ monoplanes, the forerunners of the modern light plane.”

One discrepancy in the BBC's account:  Whatever were Santos-Dumont's reasons for going back to Brazil (whence he'd hardly lived his whole life), Encyclopædia Britannica indicates that his return to that country didn't occur until 1928, whereas the BBC report in question says he went back in 1914.  Doesn't look good for the BBC's accuracy in reporting!

Santos-Dumont was an “open source” guy — the blueprints of his inventions were published in technical magazines at the time with no worries about patents and secrecy —

Santos-Dumont was also, as the BBC article notes, “The flamboyant son of a coffee baron”; he was educated and lived in France nearly his whole life — while the Wrights were a pair of self-taught bicycle mechanics.  The kind of selfless, apparently magnanimous gesture “progressives” delight in is oh, so much easier when you're independently wealthy, and not trying to make a living (around the turn of the 20th century yet) along with trying to realize one of mankind's oldest dreams.

and was always described as a very reserved person a bit averse to all the prizes and celebrations in his honor, so there seems to be little reason for personal envy or commercial rivalry with the Wright.  Anyhow, maybe I am wrong about this last critique — I would better first read a serious biography about Santos-Dumont, preferably something written from some “neutral” (non-Brazilian) point of view, like “Wings of Madness

There's also a fictionalization of Alberto Santos-Dumont's life by Welsh novelist Richard Llewellyn, entitled A Night of Bright Stars (1979).

The rant in the second link proceeds when Mr. McNeils writes “even if it took place” about the flight of the 14-Bis (Santos-Dumont's first plane — the one in the 1906 flight) — as if he were casting doubt about this well-documented, film-registered (link extracted from the article) fact.

It's true I wasn't familiar with Alberto Santos-Dumont, and lacking a reference then yes, there is initial room for doubt.  Now I realize he was an authentic aeronautical pioneer — just not yet, however, even in the heavier-than-air flight field during the years the Wrights were performing their critical experiments.  And that's why the wording the poster objects to above is still appropriate: because if Santos-Dumont's feat follows the Wrights' chronologically in time — as it evidently does; and if the Wrights' accomplishment is authentic — as it indubitably is; then it doesn't matter how real Alberto's results might be, he's not first!  Ultimately it's not even necessary to consider the reality of his flights, which is why I didn't look into that aspect of the matter further at the time.

More to the point, what would BBC gain by supposedly “casting shadows” over the Wright Brothers?  Mr. McNeil should provide a reason, like in any “good” conspiracy theory (“Aliens mutilate cattle because they want beef” or “Elvis simulated his own death because he did not want to be remembered as a fat middle-age guy,” and so on).

Oh ho, so we're “conspiracy theory” mongering here, are we?  Rather, it's the claim the Wrights weren't first and the real pioneer's story has somehow been covered up that's the conspiracy theory — which the BBC (by its own abdication of any journalistic investigation) is implicitly buying into.  As with many extant conspiracy theories, this one's disprovable, at least to the mind of intelligent observers, merely by examination (as demonstrated before), no big investigation required.

As for the BBC's reason for buying into the story, or at least pretending they did, that too isn't difficult in the answering.  The orgy of anti-Americanism the leftist-dominated European and British media, including especially the BBC, have indulged in since the run-up to the Iraq war has been noted by many observers, European as well as American.  It fits perfectly into this syndrome for them to try and stick it to American admirerers of the Wright brothers on the one hundredth anniversary of the Wrights' famous first flight.  Why else run it on this particular day: the BBC didn't just discover the story last week!  Brazilians celebrate Santos-Dumont's birthday on July 20; Alberto's first flight took place sometime in October, and since this is very old news, either of the foregoing would have been appropriate dates, on the merits of the case, to broadcast such a story.  Anybody who believes the BBC broadcast this piece exactly 100 years after 1903-12-17 just by accident, please raise your hand!

Beyond that, the story wonderfully illuminates leftists like the BBC's multicultural, postmodern paradigm:  “Everything's relative, every culture has its own ‘truth’ (don't forget the scare quotes), each of which has its own validity independent of any factual or historical verification.  You silly Americans, you just think your Wright brothers were the first to fly.  Brazilians have their own idea, and their hero has as much right and ‘truth’ behind him as your myth.”  Add to this mix the modern leftist's distain for all technological developments since the stone age (no matter that flight's been a dream of humanity since long before Daedalus and Icarus), plus their hatred of everything military — the Wrights built planes for the United States Army; Santos-Dumont apparently committed suicide over military use of aircraft (though being disheartened during the long run-up to World War II makes a certain sense) — and you arrive at the contemporary leftist myopic fantasy world.  How could the BBC resist?

As I say, broadcasting such a story on the centennial of flight is offensive (as it was intended to be, I believe), but nicely illustrates the BBC's ideological proclivities.

Think I'm reading too much into it?  I don't.


1 “Airship,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

2 Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith (Research Fellow, Science Museum, London, 1976-81; Keeper, Public Relations and Education Department, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1947-71; author of The Wright Brothers and others), “Wright, Orville and Wilbur,” Op. cit.

UPDATE:  2003-12-24 20:20 UT.  The discussion on a space science discussion list has continued concerning Impearls' earlier articles on the BBC and the anniversary of flight (permalink) and this one.  Here's my reply (perma).

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