Twelve seconds that changed the world
KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C.
In the Greek myth, Icarus proved the dangers of sticking feathers to himself with wax and flying like a bird. (He fell into the ocean.) But 100 years ago, Wilbur and Orville Wright ushered in modern aviation with not much more: They stretched a little white muslin cloth over a spruce wood skeleton, cranked up a homemade 12 h.p. gasoline engine, and took off for the sky. Just barely.Skip to next paragraph
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On Dec. 17, 1903, the brothers' four short airborne hops near Kitty Hawk, N.C., ranging in length from 120 to 852 feet, changed the world. These were the first controlled, sustained flights in a heavier-than-air machine. The dreams of children since before the Greeks - and scientists back to at least Leonardo da Vinci - finally had been realized.
Today, aviation continues to merge art and science, mystery and mathematics. It has brought the world closer together, nearly eliminated geographical isolation, brought tourism to the masses, expanded and speeded up commerce, and widened the horizons of everyone from poets to politicians and inventors. But it has also transformed warfare, making it more lethal, and handed to terrorists a new and awful weapon. And for all its practical feats and flaws, it has retained a magical hold on the human imagination.
The airplane "was the definitive invention of the 20th century," says Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "It absolutely reshaped the course of human history."
A poll of journalists and newspaper readers in 1999 found that the invention of the airplane ranked No. 4 among the top events of the 20th century. But the first three events - the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the moon landing, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor - all would have been impossible without aviation.
To understand its transformational impact, it helps to travel back in time. In the 18th century, for example, transportation was so slow and dangerous that moving even 50 to 80 miles meant it was unlikely you would ever again see the parents or siblings you left behind, says Char Miller, who teaches a course on the impact of aviation on society at Trinity University in San Antonio. In the 19th century, the same was true of those who took the Oregon Trail west. But in the 21st century, jet travel means even a college student on a budget studying halfway around the world can fly home for a visit between semesters.
In fact, today nearly everyone is a "jet-setter," a term once reserved for the wealthy few. In the past three decades, seat costs per mile have shrunk to a point where most Americans can afford to fly. And they do. It's estimated that 80 percent of Americans older than 16 have flown at least once. It's a worldwide phenomenon, too: Half of the 2 million Muslim pilgrims making the hajj to Mecca each year arrive by air.
Along with TV, "the airplane has fundamentally altered how we understand ourselves and our relationship to the earth," Professor Miller says. Both technologies "homogenized the culture. They made the society appear to be physically and perhaps mentally much closer together."
Air freight companies like FedEx count on jet speeds to fill consumer desires for quick delivery, whether sending live Maine lobsters to Nebraska, Chilean sea bass to Boston, or ensuring that a Lands' End sweater ordered on the Internet arrives the next day. Airplanes have allowed aid to reach remote areas of the world quickly, where people were suffering from famine, disease, or natural disasters.
The need to solve problems in aeronautics has also driven the development of other technologies, from new materials to electronics, computing, and machine tools. And the airplane has affected the way other products are designed. The 1950s and '60s saw everything from buildings to home appliances mimic the streamlined shapes of jet aircraft, considered to be the very symbols of modernity.
Still, not every effect of the jet age has been salutary. For instance, airline travel helped to spread last year's SARS epidemic, whose movement around the globe could be traced by following airline routes. Perhaps most important, the airplane has revolutionized warfare.