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Earthdate 2003-12-24


The discussion on a space science discussion list has continued concerning Impearls' earlier pieces on the BBC and the anniversary of flight (permalink) and BBC2 (permalink).  Our previous correspondent has proceeded as follows:

Hmmmmm…  So you saw the broadcast and was not aware of the article, while I read the article but didn't saw the broadcast.  That possibly accounts for our very different perceptions; perhaps, had I seen the thing in television, I would also notice some negative tone toward the Wright Brothers.  I have often seen (at work, for instance) trouble caused by people who misinterpret emotional undertones in e-mails, and that kind of thing applies to any situation involving voice versus written messages.

The difference in perception between broadcast vs. written media had occurred to me too.

Anyhow, welcome to the […] List.  Even though you arrived in a quasi-flame-war-ignition situation arranged by myself (sorry).  :-)

Thanks!  Glad to learn of the group, actually.  I'll try not to get into too much extraneous argumentation….

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

Interesting, I was not aware of that.  Is it a fiction with a good “suspension of disbelief” or is it some wacky fantasy a la “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”?  I can find almost nothing about this out-of-print book in the Internet…

I haven't read the book, just noted its existence in Britannica's short biography of Richard Llewellyn.  I did see that it's available for as little as about $2 on the Advanced Book Exchange (world's best used bookstore, IMHO).

I don't know the BBC in depth to know its political positions; I just assumed that, since it is British and (AFAIR) government-operated, it would be pro-American as the English government usually is.  If the actual situation is more complex than that and my assumption was naïve, then I apologize.

(Choke! gasp.)  Prime Minister Tony Blair wishes the BBC were pro-British, much less pro-American.  That's not much exaggerated, I'm afraid, as I suspect Blair would ruefully admit in a moment of candor.  The BBC is pretty much completely independent of government control, and shows it by attacking the government vigorously.  It used to be expected they would treat Conservative governments that way; now they do it to Labour too, more or less coming from the far left.  During the aftermath of the Iraq war the media furor reached such a crescendo in attempting to depose Blair as to resemble an attempted coup by this pseudo-governmental agency.

Why else run it on this particular day: the BBC didn't just discover the story last week!
Anybody who believes the BBC broadcast this piece exactly 100 years after 1903-12-17 just by accident, please raise your hand!

I don't think that it was an accident, but the date alone would not suffice for declaring the BBC “anti-Wrights.”

I agree with you on that.

For instance, during the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, there were several TV pieces from various sources remembering that America was in fact “discovered” several times by several kinds of explorers (Vikings, Chinese, etc).  But at the time I don't remember anyone saying that the mere mention of that at that specific occasion was casting a shadow on Columbus memory.  (But then, the Internet was not that popular in 1992.  Were the 500th anniversary in 2002, I am sure there would plenty of flame wars with offended Spanish and Italian internauts loudly complaining.  :-)

No doubt.  And you're right — in the case of a Columbus' discovery anniversary, for instance, just running an alternative discovery of America feature at the time wouldn't qualify that as being “anti-Columbus” at all.  (Let's continue the Columbus analogy a little longer, I think it's instructive.)  When one looks at recent Columbus-day anniversaries (not just the 500th, but annual), that's not what's happening.  I haven't tried to accumulate statistics, mind you, though I have tried keeping an eye on Columbus' media coverage during recent years, and what I recollect seeing is media piece after media piece — not showing alternatives who might have gotten to America before, that would be interesting — instead they typically rake Columbus over the coals: he's a slaver, he's a terrible administrator, he's held personally responsible for the large die-off of native Americans (mostly due to disease) following European contact (darling of the left Venezuelan president Chavez made that accusation recently), etc. etc.  It's even gotten to the point where Columbus is called a lousy navigator.

This is very different from what historians were saying only a few decades ago.  Renowned historian Samuel Eliot Morison, for example, wrote a fascinating two-volume history on the European Discovery of America, as well as another book on Columbus himself.  Besides being a respected historian, Morison was a deep-water sailor who followed Columbus' and some of the other New World explorers' routes in his own sailing ship.  Morison points out that Columbus was not only a master mariner but was personally responsible for discovery of more territory (miles of land and coastline explored) than any other explorer, including Magellan, in history.  As Morison wrote: 1 

A glance at a map of the Caribbean may remind you of what he accomplished: discovery of the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola on the First Voyage; discovery of the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the south coast of Cuba on the Second, as well as founding a permanent European colony; discovery of Trinidad and the Spanish Main, on his Third; and on the Fourth Voyage, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia.  No navigator in history, not even Magellan, discovered so much territory hitherto unknown to Europeans.  None other so effectively translated his north-south experience under the Portuguese flag to the first east-west voyage, across the Atlantic.  None other started so many things from which stem the history of the United States, of Canada, and of a score of American republics.

And do not forget that sailing west to the Orient was his idea, pursued relentlessly for six years before he had the means to try it.  As a popular jingle of the 400th anniversary put it:

What if wise men as far back as Ptolemy
Judged that the earth like an orange was round,
None of them ever said, “Come along, follow me,
Sail to the West and the East will be found.”

Columbus had his faults, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great.  These were an unbreakable faith in God and his own destiny as the bearer of the Word to lands beyond the seas; an indomitable will and stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty, and ridicule.  But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities — seamanship.  As a master mariner and navigator, no one in the generation prior to Magellan could touch Columbus.  Never was a title more justly bestowed than the one which he most jealously guarded — Almirante del Mar Oceano — Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

You see what I'm talking about.  Coverage of Columbus in the last few decades has changed — almost like a bright light being turned off, and a dark light darkly illuminating him and his times turned on.  Is this new paradigm constantly being preached any more likely to be correct, or true, than the old?  Considering what I see as the change originating more or less in intellectual fashion (an anti-exploration fashion) rather than scientific historical results, I have severe doubts about that.

Getting back to the Wright brothers, had the BBC done a show on the pathos of Santos-Dumont as an aviation pioneer who did his work thinking (before the Wrights' flights had become widely known) that he was first to fly, then I could have had no complaint.  Had they shown how Alberto's aircraft compared with the Wrights' and how he solved the same problems as they but in a decidedly different way, that would have been fascinating.  (Correct me if I'm wrong somebody, I don't recall the BBC showing what Santos-Dumont's airplane even looked like; instead they displayed the box Alberto's heart is supposedly locked up in.)  More significantly, rather than showing him figuratively standing alongside, and a little behind, the Wrights' achievement, they explicitly tried to knock the Wright Brothers out of the way by claiming that their achievement was invalid, erroneous, for a couple of different (spurious) reasons — as if the Wrights ought to be disqualified like an athlete who'd cheated or used steroids.  And then the BBC showed nothing of the (convincing) other side of the story.

That's what, in my view, turns the BBC piece into an anti-Wright Brothers slam.  The “coincidence” of the date merely adds reason to believe it's no accident.


1 Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages (1492-1616), 1974, Oxford University Press, New York; p. 267.

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