On September 29, 1909, in what must have been an astounding demonstration for onlookers, Wilbur Wright flew an airplane over Manhattan for the very first time. They say that nearly a million venturesome New Yorkers filled the streets with cheers. At some point near the end of his flight, Wilbur changed direction, and someone in the crowd yelled, “He’s headed for Jersey!” But he wasn’t headed for Jersey. Before he landed, the aviation pioneer wanted to fly over the harbor to give a nod to the Statue of Liberty.
Although we usually let anniversaries like this come and go unnoticed, this time let’s take a moment to give a nod to breakthrough innovators and another nod to the liberty that allowed them to innovate.
The cautious among us retell the myth of Icarus whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. He fell into the sea and died. The story is told to convince us that we shouldn’t be too ambitious, and especially we shouldn’t try to fly. After 1896, the cautious could buttress the Icarus story with the words of leading physicist Lord Kelvin, who said that the only way we would ever be able to fly is in balloons. Fortunately, Wilbur Wright did not worry about Greek mythology or Lord Kelvin.
Instead, along with his brother, he innovated, first in the design of bicycles and then in the audacious attempt to fly. David McCullough tells the story well. Wilbur and his brother used profits from their Wright Cycle Company to fund their trial-and-error experiments at Kitty Hawk, where Wilbur watched the birds soar. No government agency regulated their experiments. Conditions were very harsh — swarms of mosquitoes, heat, winds blowing their tents. But Orville said this was the happiest time of their lives. And eventually they succeeded.
Other people had tried. After generous subsidies from the War Department, Samuel Langley’s aerodrome briefly achieved flight. But then it crashed into the Potomac. The problem wasn’t getting airborne so much as it was landing in a controlled way, and that’s what Wilbur figured out how to do.
Now some environmentalists seek to ban Wilbur’s invention, worried that airplanes release carbon dioxide that increases global warming. But we do not need to ban airplanes to save the planet. Fuels can be made cleaner and engines can be made more efficient. Some scientists are developing ways to better sequester carbon dioxide, while others are devising practical plans to lower temperatures, if they increase more quickly than our ability to adapt.
We may have to work hard to sustain flight, just as the Wrights worked hard to create it. But it is worth the effort. Flight allows us to meet and understand distant people. It allows us to see again those we knew and miss. It allows us to trade and create with more and distant partners. It provides safer and quicker travel, which frees our time for whatever we choose. Medicines can be rushed to the sick; lovers to their rendezvous; refugees to lands of freedom and hope.
Those who are cautious may prefer a slower life, willing to forgo adventure for the promise of less stress. In a society that allows airplanes to exist, the cautious can still choose to stay grounded. But in a society that bans airplanes, the venturesome will be grounded against their will. If we value freedom of choice, we allow flight.
The venturesome in both political parties, the true progressives, should unite to ponder what drives progress, asking why in recent decades we have had much more progress in Silicon Valley than elsewhere. One important difference is that, like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, Silicon Valley has faced fewer regulations. Inventors and entrepreneurs can again quicken our progress toward longer, more fulfilling, and more hopeful lives, if the venturesome in both parties join Wilbur Wright to give a nod to liberty.