Aviation's Astonishing Leap

The Wright Brothers take off—only 66 years before Apollo 11.
The Wright Brothers take off—only 66 years before Apollo 11.
Monday, November 25, 2013 - 11:15am

Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana, one of my favorite books, offers compelling evidence of how fast our world is being transformed. On page after page, we see products, services, vocations and styles that once seemed integral to daily life but have nearly or completely disappeared. Remember milkmen? Carbon paper? Phone booths? Drive-in movies? Vinyl records? All gone or mostly gone. OK, that last item is making a bit of a comeback, but downloading music has become so pervasive that in many homes even CDs are already obsolete.

Much further down in the scrap heap of history is the IBM Selectric typewriter I relied on in the 1970s. Back then, its use of a ball-shaped typing element instead of keys rendered it cutting-edge technology, but it would look like a fat relic next to one of today’s laptop computers. As for the “Magic Brain” mechanical calculator I carried around in junior high, thinking about it now just makes me laugh. I’ve actually seen ones just like it in antique stores.

Speaking of antiques, consider AT&T’s Princess phone. Consumers lauded its compact design and the original model’s illuminated rotary dial. But it doesn’t exactly stack up next to the iPhone, which Apple introduced in 2007, a mere 13 years after production of the Princess ended. What’s a lighted dial compared with a go-anywhere, quarter-inch-thick wireless device that connects to the Internet, lets you make free video calls and features Siri, who can provide at least six decent answers to your questions about the meaning of life?

Trading Princess phones for iPhones in a little more than a decade—that’s quite a technological leap. But I can think of at least one such leap that was even bigger. That’s the one that happened between December 1903, when Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and August 1969, when Apollo 11 carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon and back.

Think about it: 110 years ago this December, the Wright Brothers thrilled the world by taking a 120-foot flight over a beach at 6.8 miles per hour—a flight that lasted 12 seconds, or about as long as it took you to read this sentence. And a mere 66 years later, when many people who’d been around for Kitty Hawk were still alive, astronauts flew almost a quarter of a million miles to the moon, landed, took a look around and returned safely to Earth.

That’s what I call progress.

So now it’s 2013. In 2035—just 22 years from now—as much time will have passed since the moon landing as went by from 1903 to 1969. By then, will humanity have achieved something that represents as big a leap from the moon landing as the moon landing did from the Wright Brothers’ flight? I sure hope so, but Siri, bizliners and even the space shuttle notwithstanding, I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

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Quote/Unquote

“[New billionaires in fast-growing countries] have to buy longer-range airplanes. If you’re flying from Mongolia to Nigeria, it’s either a three-day journey flying commercial or a nine-hour flight on your jet.”

-Steve Varsano