Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
NGC3132 ©
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.

E = M

Energy is eternal delight.
William Blake

Impearls: 2003-12-21 Archive

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.

Impearls: 2003-12-21 Archive

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).


(Blank last screen)


Are you an

If you fancy
any piece
you may donate
to reprise!


Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member

[Powered by Blogger]

Impearls Archives

2002-11-03 2002-11-10 2002-11-17 2002-11-24 2002-12-01 2002-12-08 2002-12-15 2002-12-22 2002-12-29 2003-01-05 2003-01-12 2003-01-19 2003-01-26 2003-02-02 2003-02-16 2003-04-20 2003-04-27 2003-05-04 2003-05-11 2003-06-01 2003-06-15 2003-06-22 2003-06-29 2003-07-13 2003-07-20 2003-08-03 2003-08-10 2003-08-24 2003-08-31 2003-09-07 2003-09-28 2003-10-05 2003-10-26 2003-11-02 2003-11-16 2003-11-23 2003-11-30 2003-12-07 2003-12-14 2003-12-21 2003-12-28 2004-01-04 2004-01-11 2004-01-25 2004-02-01 2004-02-08 2004-02-29 2004-03-07 2004-03-14 2004-03-21 2004-03-28 2004-04-04 2004-04-11 2004-04-18 2004-04-25 2004-05-02 2004-05-16 2004-05-23 2004-05-30 2004-06-06 2004-06-13 2004-06-20 2004-07-11 2004-07-18 2004-07-25 2004-08-22 2004-09-05 2004-10-10 2005-06-12 2005-06-19 2005-06-26 2005-07-03 2005-07-10 2005-07-24 2005-08-07 2005-08-21 2005-08-28 2005-09-04 2005-09-11 2005-09-18 2005-10-02 2005-10-09 2005-10-16 2005-10-30 2005-11-06 2005-11-27 2006-04-02 2006-04-09 2006-07-02 2006-07-23 2006-07-30 2007-01-21 2007-02-04 2007-04-22 2007-05-13 2007-06-17 2007-09-09 2007-09-16 2007-09-23 2007-10-07 2007-10-21 2007-11-04 2009-06-28 2009-07-19 2009-08-23 2009-09-06 2009-09-20 2009-12-13 2011-03-27 2012-01-01 2012-02-05 2012-02-12