Sunday, April 14, 2013
I have added quite a few entries to the sidebar here in recent weeks. Those who have time to browse might find some new thoughts that they like.
A Tale of ‘Government Investment’
As amateurs, the Wright brothers beat the taxpayer-funded brain trust in the race to flight
It was the early 20th century. America was in a race with the powers of the world to invent the first airplane. Much was at stake. Our leaders feared that the Germans, the British, and, if you can suspend your disbelief, the French might beat us to the punch, giving the winning country a huge advantage militarily and economically.
Who better to win the race for us, thought our leaders, than the best and brightest minds the government could buy? They chose Samuel Langley. You don’t know him, but in his day, Langley was a big deal. He had a big brain and lots of credentials. A renowned scientist and a professor of astronomy, he wrote books about aviation and was the head of the Smithsonian.
It was the kind of decision that well-intentioned bureaucrats would make throughout the century — and still make today. Give taxpayer money to the smartest guys in the room, the ones with lots of degrees. They’ll innovate and do good for us.
Langley did have some success with unmanned flight, using a catapult-like system to propel his machines into the air. On the basis of that limited success, the Department of War gave him $50,000 for two experiments, and he extracted a decent sum from the Smithsonian, too. That was real money back then. Today, bureaucrats wouldn’t stop to pick up $50,000 if it were lying on the street.
What did the citizens of the United States get for that “investment,” the kind we are making today in green energy? It was the Great Aerodrome, and on October 7, 1903, the aircraft developed by Langley’s team of experts was launched from a catapult on a houseboat in the Potomac River.
The crowds lined up, as did the press. As the aircraft accelerated and reached full speed, it was hurtled along a catapult toward a launch. A few scant seconds of sudden acceleration were followed by a sudden and shocking plunge into river. “It fell like a ton of mortar,” a reporter wrote.
The plane that couldn’t fly and the man flying it were somehow salvaged, and preparations were made for another flight. The project needed some tweaks, the experts told the world. On December 8, Langley and his team of brainiacs tried it again. This time, the airplane got caught up in the launching mechanism and dropped into the river.
Langley’s machine should have been called the Not So Great Aerodrome; it never got airborne. The media had a field day. “The Boston Herald suggested that Professor Langley ought to give up airplanes and try submarines,” Burt Folsom notes in a lecture in Hillsdale College’s series of online courses, “American Heritage.” The Brooklyn Eagle led its story with this quote from a now-forgotten congressman: “You tell Langley for me that the only thing he ever made fly was government money.”
The War Department, in its final report on the Langley project, concluded: “We are still far from the ultimate goal, and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would still be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility on these lines.” Isn’t that just the kind of arrogance you’d expect from government bureaucrats? If their best minds can’t do it with our money, no one can.
On December 17, 1903, only nine days after Langley’s second failed experiment, two Ohio men did what the War Department, Langley, the Smithsonian, and all of that government investment could not. With $2,000 of their own money and little fanfare, the Wright brothers launched the first powered heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. From dunes four miles south of Kitty Hawk, N.C., the Wrights’ Flyer flew for 59 seconds, traveled 852 feet, and ushered in the era of modern aviation.
How did the Wright brothers succeed where Langley had failed? Langley and his band of experts were working on the wrong problem and thought more money would solve it. James Tobin in his book To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and The Great Race for Flight (2004) explained that they saw flight as a problem of power; the Wrights, as a problem of balance. That difference in perspective led to the development of two machines along very different paths: Langley’s, straight into the water and oblivion; the Wright brothers’, straight to the sky, and into history.
From the beginning of their work in aeronautics, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control. Their breakthrough was their conception of what is now called three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and maintain its balance. This method became a standard in the industry and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft.
How did they see what others couldn’t? By chance or fate, the Wright brothers had mechanical skills perfectly suited to their success in aviation, and insight that came from their years of experience in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. They understood that an unstable vehicle such as a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice. These were advantages that the government lacked, as did some of their fiercest competitors in the private sector, including Alexander Graham Bell.
That’s the thing about genius: It springs from the unlikeliest places.
The Wright brothers were also freed from the subsidy-induced waste that hinders many government-funded projects. Indeed, the limits on their financial resources actually helped them. They were compelled to spend wisely what little they had. As Milton Friedman once observed, few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.
Since the Wright brothers couldn’t absorb the costs of repeated flight tests, they developed a wind tunnel to test aerodynamic designs. This saved them not only money but time. From those simulations they amassed data that they used to hone their aircraft designs. It proved easier to fix a problem on paper than to do what Langley did: rebuild planes that had no chance of flying.
Another (often overlooked) reason that using their own money gave the Wright brothers a competitive advantage: control. Indeed, they turned down investors, appreciating that when grantors give money, they usually attach conditions. All too often the course of development is altered to cater to the grantor’s expectations, even if they are dead wrong or just plain silly. Who dares bite the hand that feeds him? Many of the experiments the Wright brothers carried out might never have been green-lighted by a corporate or government bureaucracy.
Repeatedly, hobbyists and tinkerers beat big government and big companies when it comes to innovation. Small beats big, and people with less money and scantier resources come up with products and inventions that change industries — and the world. It was a young Bill Gates who challenged IBM’s lucrative mainframe business; the same holds true of the creators of Apple, Google, and Facebook.
As with so many great innovations in our own time, powered flight in America was propelled by amateurs. The Wright brothers found themselves in the flying business, writes Tobin, “in the sheer spirit of play, of hobbyists.”
Yet another advantage that they enjoyed was that they were interested in making a profit. To the inventor of the first manned flight would come riches, while the bicycle business, which had been a good one for them, was undergoing a consolidation. Profit margins were shrinking. The brothers eyed manned flight as a future source of profit.
Langley, on the other hand, was attempting to advance the public good. While men who, like Langley, make their living in academia and from government funding often mock the profit motive, it’s the world’s best-known mechanism for unleashing people’s capabilities for productivity, which lead to innovations and products that contribute to the public good.
Though the Wrights beat Langley and the Smithsonian, the race didn’t end there. Powerful interests vied for the patent to this revolutionary invention and, more important, for the credit for it. With Smithsonian approval, a well-known aviation expert modified Langley’s Aerodrome and in 1914 made some short flights designed to bypass the Wright brothers’ patent application and to vindicate the Smithsonian and its fearless leader, Samuel Langley.
That’s right. The Smithsonian’s brain trust couldn’t beat the bicycle-shop owners fair and square, so they used their power to steal the credit. And then they used their bully pulpit to rewrite history. In 1914, America’s most esteemed historical museum cooked the books and displayed the Smithsonian-funded Langley Aerodrome in its museum as the first manned aircraft heavier than air and capable of flight.
Orville Wright, who outlived his brother Wilbur, accused the Smithsonian of falsifying the historical record. So upset was he that he sent the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer, the plane that made aviation history, to a science museum in . . . London.
But truth is a stubborn thing. And in 1942, after much embarrassment, the Smithsonian recanted its false claims about the Aerodrome. The British museum returned the Wright brothers’ historic Flyer to America, and the Smithsonian put it on display in their Arts and Industries Building on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after the aircraft’s only flights. A grand government deception was at last foiled by facts and fate.
The totalitarianism of universal background checks
Finally, some sanity, and from a somewhat unexpected source. The ACLU is concerned about the civil liberties implications of the new Harry Reid Senate bill to establish so-called “universal background checks” for firearms purchases. The organization has tended toward silence on gun rights, but at least now it recognizes aspects of the problem with this terrible proposal.
Ever since Sandy Hook, the Obama administration and its progressive choir have demanded a new Assault Weapons Ban (AWB). Now it looks like that plan is toast. California Senator Dianne Feinstein blames gun owners and the NRA, and in a sense we should have expected all along that this proposal would get nowhere. Such a ban would mostly target “semi-automatic” rifles—which, despite all the hysterics, simply refers to any standard rifle that fires one round each time the trigger is pulled—that happen to have esthetic elements like the pistol grip that do not in fact add to the weapons’ lethality. This is the nonsensical standard used to ban some classes of weapons instrumentally identical to the ones banned in 1994.
The first AWB devastated the Democrats politically, and probably contributed as much as anything to the Republicans’ crushing victory in the 1994 congressional elections after forty years in the legislative minority. It also hurt Al Gore in his run against George W. Bush in 2000. The ban generally prohibited ordinary but scary looking rifles, which are used in about two percent of violent crimes committed with firearms. The law did not apply to, say, most of the weapons used at the Columbine school massacre in 1999. But it did interfere with Americans’ basic right to own what we can fairly call the modern version of the musket. Millions of Americans own such weapons like the AR-15, the most popular rifle and one targeted by the Democrats’ proposal for a new, robust AWB. These weapons are used for hunting, sport, and self-defense. They are not, despite all the misinformation to the contrary, repeating, military-style rifles.
In any event, the unpopularity of an AWB always doomed this proposal, especially under a Democratic president as distrusted on the right as Obama. The Republicans have the House and too many Democrats in the Senate are loyal to their gun-owning constituents.
So this whole time, the real threat to our firearms freedom has been these less debated, peripheral proposals—proposals that strip people the state deems “mentally ill” of the right to bear arms, proposals that violate the civil rights of released convicts, proposals to increase penalties for violations of current law, and, as disturbing as anything, proposals to institute “universal background checks.”
The gun restrictionists have pointed to polls showing more than 90% approval of such background checks, including among a vast majority of conservatives, Republicans, and gunowners. Liberty is always attacked on the margins, and most Americans don’t go to gun shows and so don’t see the big deal. Surely the state should know who is armed. Surely we don’t want people buying and selling guns freely.
But, in fact, universal background checks are arguably even more tyrannical than banning whole classes of weapons. Why should the government know who is armed? Why shouldn’t people be allowed to freely buy and sell private property without government permission? Half of Americans see background checks as the first step toward full registration then confiscation. Many fear that the new law would create records of these deals that would not immediately be destroyed, which could form databases or enable government in further nefarious purposes. The progressives have tended to regard any of these worries as paranoia, but it looks like the ACLU is now among the paranoid.
There is no need to discuss pure hypotheticals. There have been gun confiscations in the United States. After the Civil War, officials conducted confiscations to disarm American Indians and blacks became the target in the Jim Crow South. Confiscations followed Hurricane Katrina, along with the rest of the government’s martial law response.
Since many gun controllers openly say they want a total ban of certain kinds of firearms, or all firearms, why wouldn’t gunowners fear that registration will lead to confiscation? The U.S. president promised that he would not take away Americans’ rifles, then went ahead and proceeded to propose to do just that. Add all of this to the database growth, the warrantless wiretapping, the domestic surveillance drones, the frightening executive power grabs concerning detention, interrogation, and executions, and the overall militarization of policing that has unfolded thanks to the wars on drugs and terror
Of course, it should go without saying that when it comes to criminal enterprise, universal background checks are unenforceable. In a country with as many guns as there are people, criminals and the state will always get the weapons they want. Firearms are easier to manufacture than many illegal drugs, and we see how well the state has stamped those out. The rapid developments in 3-D printing makes it even crazier that we’d still be talking about gun control as anything but a threat to the liberty of the law abiding.
Every mass shooting over last 20 years has one thing in common … and it’s not guns: "Nearly every mass shooting incident in the last twenty years, and multiple other instances of suicide and isolated shootings all share one thing in common, and its not the weapons used. The overwhelming evidence points to the signal largest common factor in all of these incidents is the fact that all of the perpetrators were either actively taking powerful psychotropic drugs or had been at some point in the immediate past before they committed their crimes." [Ban psychiatric drugs?]
The coming healthcare cuts for seniors and the disabled: "Senior citizens are major losers in health reform. More than half the cost of the reform will be paid for by $523 billion of cuts in Medicare spending over the next ten years. Although there are some new benefits for seniors (mainly new drug coverage), the costs exceed the benefits by a factor of more than ten to one."
Screwing the troops: "The delay and endless often senseless paperwork involved in getting anything is so great that it is easier for disabled vets just to do without or pay for it themselves one way or another. Remember, we are not talking welfare queens or entitlement parasites. These are guys badly hurt in Washington’s wars, brains scrambled by IEDs, legs still somewhere in Afghanistan. The vet’s only hope is to have smart, tenacious representation, preferably by a lawyer. Few have this. What it comes to is that, in practice, the benefits that are supposed to exist do not. This saves a lot of money. It doesn’t help the vet."
For more blog postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, EYE ON BRITAIN and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated) and Coral reef compendium. (Updated as news items come in). GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten.
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Posted by JR at 12:34 AM