What Were They Thinking?

The wonderful, unworkable world of airplane design in the years before the Wright brothers.

Alexander Graham Bell was infatuated with the tetrahedral, or four-sided, cell, but only one of his tetrahedral kites flew. (NASM)
Air & Space Magazine

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It would be unfair to say all of these designs were losers. Some actually flew, and did so before the Wright brothers’ Flyer. A few even made tentative steps toward control. But Wilbur didn’t seem threatened by his competition. “From our knowledge of the subject,” he wrote to Chanute, “we estimate that it is possible to jump about 250 ft., with a machine that has not made the first steps toward controllability and which is quite unable to maintain the motive force necessary for flight. By getting up good speed a machine can be made to rise with very little power, and can proceed several hundred feet before its momentum is exhausted....”

While the Wrights were—well—right, their machine was a pretty sober affair. The designs of the pre-Wright era have a boldness and extravagance that make them easy to like and root for, however futilely. And maybe that’s instructive in its own right.

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