How We Got To Where We Are

I’m currently reading The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough which is not only written in his usual readable style, but gets to the brothers, Wilbur and Orville, that shows them to be brilliant and hardworking. I was unaware of the amount of knowledge that they generated in figuring out how to build a machine that would fly. The testing, using relatively simple machines to build a machine that would fly got more dangerous the longer and higher they could fly. This got me to thinking about having lived through the invention of so much in today’s daily lives.

Reading about two young men with no technical education who learned all they needed to know to build the first machine that would go up and could be kept up led me to think about the technical times I have lived through. The brothers began with bicycles, moved on to motor cars and then spent all of their time on flight.

Railroads have been around a lot longer and were still the major passenger service through the 1950s. However, as more automobiles were sold, more paved roads were built, the need for short line passenger service by railroads declined. In 1919, General Eisenhower drove across country coast to coast to assess the ability of the military to move on the existing road system. It was a dreadful trip on both vehicles and passengers. This stayed in his mind and when he became president he supported a national highway system (which is badly in need of repair).

A major outgrowth of WWII was our system of air travel. With barely 30 years elapsed since the Wright brothers got a plane up in the air to stay, several companies were trying to build passenger planes and a market for them. With the advent of the war, several large plane manufacturing companies were built up on designing and building massive numbers of bombers and fighters. Air fields were built all over the country, thousands of men (and some women) learned to fly and do the work that kept planes in the air. In the process, railroads transported millions of men and massive amounts of equipment all over the country. By the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of young people had had some contact with airplanes and were an easy sell for air travel.

So Wilbur and Orville were leaders in moving the western world into its transformative mode. There are more Wilbur and Orvilles today, but they are working on ideas in environments that are truly inaccessible to the rest of us.

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