The Airplane: How Ideas Gave Us Wings

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This entertaining history of the jetliner, Jay Spenser traces aviation's challenges from the outset, and follows the flow of the simple yet powerful ideas that led us to defy gravity. Here are the pioneers-innovators such as Otto Lilienthal, lgor Sikorsky, Louis Blériot, Hugo Junkers, and Jack Northrop-whose amazing contributions collectively solved the puzzle of flight. Along the way, Spenser demystifies the modern jetliner, examining the airplane from wings to flight controls to fuselages to landing gear, to ...

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The Airplane: How Ideas Gave Us Wings

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This entertaining history of the jetliner, Jay Spenser traces aviation's challenges from the outset, and follows the flow of the simple yet powerful ideas that led us to defy gravity. Here are the pioneers-innovators such as Otto Lilienthal, lgor Sikorsky, Louis Blériot, Hugo Junkers, and Jack Northrop-whose amazing contributions collectively solved the puzzle of flight. Along the way, Spenser demystifies the modern jetliner, examining the airplane from wings to flight controls to fuselages to landing gear, to show how each part came into being and evolved over time. And finally The Airplane addresses the future of aviation, outlining the breathtaking possibilities that await us tomorrow, many miles above the earth.

Who were aviation's dreamers, and where did they get their inspiration?

How did birds, insects, marine mammals, and fish help us to fly?

How did the bicycle beget the airplane, and hot water heaters lead to metal fuselages?

Who figured out how to fly without seeing the ground, enabling airline travel in all weather conditions?

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

This history of the development of the airplane by Spenser, a former curator of the National Air and Space Museum and author of 747, recasts the Wright brothers' contribution as he widens the scope to aviation history in France, Germany and beyond. Spenser starts with the pioneering work of Yorkshire gentleman Sir George Cayley in the late 18th century, delineates the competitive race between inventors in the early 1900s and culminates (somewhat abruptly) in the world of modern jet airliner travel. Spenser's history reads like a textbook for young, aspiring engineers. Instead of a general chronological approach, Spenser divides the book into sections that each track the development of a different part of the airplane, from the fuselage to landing gear. While this allows him to show how the modern airplane is not a singular invention but rather the cumulative result of thousands of different inventors, trials and errors, it does diffuse the narrative. Still, Spenser's book stands as a smart, and occasionally wonkish, history of a thrilling machine all too often taken for granted. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Spenser (former curator, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) has written an engaging text, using a growth metaphor (conception, birth, etc.) to organize the chapters. Much livelier than his 747: Creating the World's First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation(cowritten with Joe Sutter), this book has a conversational narrative style that should appeal to both aviation enthusiasts and more general history and technology readers. Occasionally, Spenser's digressions drag on (e.g., on the shape of spindles), but his text is mostly on point and engrossing. The book is international in scope, explaining the exciting ideas about the physics of flight that were shared across borders as well as the international air races and prizes that spurred further development of airworthy vehicles. According to, over 800 works on aviation history have been published in the past three years. Even so, Spenser's book is worthy of addition to public, academic, and, possibly, high school libraries, as the lively writing and the number of photographs set it above many of its competitors.
—Sara R. Tompson

Seattle Times
“A story with a new character and a new engineering problem on every other page, each served with a sense of delight in ideas that sent humanity aloft.”
Sacramento Book Review
“This is a written like an episode of the old TV show Connections, and is just as entertaining.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061259203
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/24/2009
  • Pages: 340
  • Sales rank: 825,894
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 8.04 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Jay Spenser has spent a lifetime studying aviation as a museum curator at the National Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Flight, and as an aerospace industry writer. He is the co-author of 747 and lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Read an Excerpt

The Airplane
How Ideas Gave Us Wings

Chapter One


The Thinker and the Dreamer

An uninterrupted navigable ocean that comes to the threshold of every man's door ought not to be neglected as a source of human gratification and advantage.
—Sir George Cayley (1773-1857)1

In Yorkshire in the northeast of England, a human being first imagined the airplane. This scientifically accurate emergence happened a hundred years before the Wright brothers invented the real thing.

At first glance, Yorkshire seems an odd place for the science of aviation to begin. However, history shows that creativity flourishes where cultures mix, and England's largest traditional county certainly boasted plenty of that. Celtic tribes lost to the mists of time, marching Roman legions, Angle farmers settling from Germany, and marauding Vikings invading from Denmark all called it home at one time or another.

The airplane's conceptual inventor was Yorkshire baronet Sir George Cayley. Born in December 1773 at Scarborough on the North Sea, Cayley inherited his title, wealth, and large landholdings upon the death of his father. But a greater inheritance had already come his way at birth, for he possessed a brilliant mind.

Few people today know Cayley's name even though he single-handedly established the science of aviation and laid a foundation for others to build on. The Wright brothers never would have left the ground without his powerful ideas, for example, but they were far from the first to try.

That honor belongs to another Englishman, Cayley'sself-appointed disciple William S. Henson. Thrilled by Cayley's visionary writings, Henson galloped off to design a real airplane before the middle of the nineteenth century. Although his premature attempt failed, Henson at least showed the world what the airplane would be.

If Cayley was the thinker, Henson—four decades his junior—was the dreamer. The two men hardly could have been more different, yet their overlapping efforts synergistically planted the seeds of flight.

The people of Yorkshire are known for a calm and deliberate nature. George Cayley from an early age broke the mold. Around his tenth birthday, this enthusiastic young aristocrat was excited in particular by news sweeping England: human beings had flown in Europe.

On November 21, 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the marquis d'Arlandes ascended into the heavens in a new invention called the balloon. According to the reports, these Frenchmen drifted over the city of Paris for twenty-five minutes, covering 5½ miles (9 kilometers) before setting down safely.

At that time, the event was hailed as the first time human beings had ever flown. Today we know this was probably not the case. While history does not provide definitive proof of earlier manned ascents, it is quite likely that large kites (a dangerous way to fly, given their propensity for headlong plunges) carried people aloft more than a millennium before the invention of the balloon. The Venetian Marco Polo lends credence to accounts of earlier aerial forays. Writing in the late thirteenth century, he described personally witnessing people flying aboard large kites in China.

Pilâtre de Rozier and Arlandes' vehicle of 1783 was the brainchild of Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier, two brothers in France's papermaking trade. A majestic blue orb of varnished taffeta decorated ornately in gold, this hot-air balloon was open at the bottom and was launched after being filled with smoke from a large outdoor blaze before its restraints were released.

Surprisingly, the Montgolfiers did not know why their balloon sailed into the sky. They did not understand that hot air has a lower density than cold air and is thus lighter, so they instead endorsed the classical notion that it was smoke's natural tendency to rise that made their invention buoyant. Lending pseudoscientific credence to this flawed theory, they further asserted that smoke contained a previously unidentified substance—called Montgolfier gas, naturally—that imparts a gravity-defying upward force called levity.

Their success—and that of their archrival, French physicist Jacques Alexandre Charles with his more advanced hydrogen balloons—launched a rapturous, all-out French obsession with lighter-than-air flight. Part of this euphoria was the uplifting grace of balloons themselves, which lyrically fulfilled humankind's age-old dream of flight.

But there was more to this rampant "balloonacy" than poetic sensibilities. With the industrial revolution then under way in England and spreading to Europe, balloons also symbolized man's growing technological prowess and the heady excitement of new frontiers. Balloons even became a favorite decorative motif in French furniture, plates, paintings, mantel clocks, and chandeliers.

Back in Yorkshire, the success of the Montgolfiers kindled in young George Cayley a lifelong fascination with flight. But the balloon itself didn't hold the Yorkshire boy's interest for very long. He quickly decided that heavier-than-air vehicles were flying's future.

Two factors shaped this conviction. The first was Cayley's belief that a flying machine, to be practical, must be dirigible (steerable) so people could fly it where they liked instead of drifting at the whim of the wind. The second was his delight in a flying toy perfected a year after that first balloon flight by two other Frenchmen, the naturalist Launoy and a mechanic named Bienvenu.

Launoy and Bienvenu's toy was a rudimentary helicopter with a central shaft, corks at both ends with feathers angled to provide lift as they spun, and a bow (as in bow and arrow) drawn taut by winding its string around the shaft. Letting go the wound-up helicopter released the bow's tension, rotating the feathered shaft to carry it high into the sky.

In his early twenties, Cayley built and tested a copy of this ingenious device, which for him was more than a mere amusement. In size and performance, it greatly improved on the Chinese top, that ancient and ubiquitous toy consisting of a carved propeller mounted atop a stick. Spinning this stick rapidly between one's hands would send the Chinese top aloft.

Unlike balloons, man-made amusements such as these were not buoyant. Neither were birds, yet they too could fly. Such being the case, Cayley wondered, why couldn't a man-carrying machine be built that likewise was heavier than the air around it?

The Airplane
How Ideas Gave Us Wings
. Copyright © by Jay Spenser. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Introduction xi

1 Conception: The Thinker and the Dreamer 1

2 Birth: Wilbur, Orville, and the World 16

3 Configuration: Shapes and Ideas 37

4 Fuselage: Of Drums and Dragonflies 56

5 Wings, Part I: From Box Kites to Bridges 86

6 Wings, Part II: Cloud-Cutting Cantilevers 112

7 Empennage: Whale Flukes and Arrow Feathers 136

8 Flight Controls: The Chariot's Reins 142

9 Flight Deck: Cockpits for Aerial Ships 173

10 Aero Propulsion: Prometheus Is Pushing 201

11 Landing Gear: Shoes, Canoes, and Carriage Wheels 238

12 Passenger Cabin: Voyaging Aloft 253

13 Systems Integration: Making Flying Safer 281

14 Today's State Of The Art: The Boeing 787 Dreamliner 292

Postscript Tomorrow's Wings: Future Air Travel Technologies 305

Notes 311

Acknowledgments 319

Photo Credits 321

Index 323

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    Posted July 14, 2014



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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2014


    Anybody here knows minecraft? Signing off,maoncrest

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2011


    Interesting, but occationally repetative. Probably best for private pilots or newer aerospace enthusiasts. I am an airline pilot and did not learn much, but it contains a lot of good info in one place for a less experienced aviation enthusiast.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2011


    I love this book! Would recomend to anybody who loves aviation. The writing and research is superb.

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    Posted April 25, 2012

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