Friday, June 7, 2013

Flying—A Dream Come True!

Ida M. Tarbell (1867–1944)
From Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight

Curtiss Model F “water boat,” circa 1912. Courtesy of Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.
The lead story in the June 1897 issue of McClure’s Magazine was “The Flying Machine,” written by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley. The previous year Langley had successfully launched two record-shattering unmanned flights. The first flight was a steam-powered craft that, launched from a boat in the Potomac River, traveled nearly three-quarters of a mile—the longest distance, by a factor of ten, flown by any heavier-than-air craft. A few months later, a second aircraft remained aloft for almost a full mile. In his article, Langley described his “experiments” and concluded:
I have brought to a close the portion of the work which seemed to be specially mine—the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight—and for the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea, it is probable that the world may look to others. The world, indeed, will be supine if it do not realize that a new possibility has come to it, and that the great universal highway overhead is now soon to be opened.
The publisher of the magazine, S. S. McClure, had been hoping to get this article from Langley for several months, and to do so he enlisted the aid of a new staff editor, Ida Tarbell, who had met the professor while living in Washington. Tarbell later recalled, “I think perhaps it was a little strain on Dr. Langley's good will to have a young woman come to him and say ‘Now we want the whole story of how you have done this thing, what it means—no scientific jargon, please. We want it told in language so simple that I can understand it, for if I can understand it all the world can.’ Which, knowing me, he probably knew was true.”

Langley ultimately failed in his attempts to launch a manned flight in one of his vehicles. He died in February 1906, only a little more than two years after the Wright Brothers flew their plane near Kitty Hawk. But Langley’s early enthusiasm was contagious; Tarbell herself became a believer in the imminent inevitability of air travel and, one hundred years ago, in 1913, she finally got the chance to fly in a plane herself. (According to a recent biographical essay by Robert C. Kochersberger, Tarbell may have been “the first woman to fly in an airplane and write about it” for publication.) She described the thrilling experience in a letter to a friend, and The American Magazine, which she co-owned and co-edited from 1906 to 1915, published excerpts from her letter as “Flying—A Dream Come True!”

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I think you know that I have always believed that some day we should fly. I cannot remember the time when I did not believe this. I think it dates back to the success of my first kite. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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