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An encyclopedic explanation of how humanity ascended into the sky

Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age, from Antiquity through the First World War - Richard P. Hallion

Richard Hallion's book offers its readers an encyclopedic overview of the history of flight, from the earliest legends through the First World War. Though his focus is on heavier-than-air flight, he also includes extensive coverage of the development of lighter-than-air craft and how it influenced aeronautical development. Throughout this book, Hallion demonstrates both an impressive range of knowledge and a welcome capacity for explaining some of the more technical details of aerodynamics - one that is especially welcome when it comes to explaining why so many of the Wrights' predecessors failed in their attempts to master flight.

The portrait Hallion paints is a fascinating one. He conveys the extent to which the Wright brothers built upon the achievements of both their predecessors and their contemporaries. Developments were reaching a critical mass, which - as Hallion repeatedly asserts - would almost certainly have led to heavier-than-air flight by 1910 (with the first flight most likely taking place in France). Nevertheless, the author does not underrate the Wrights' considerable accomplishment and its contribution to our history. Even after Europeans were first taking to the air in heavier-than-air craft, the Wrights' Flyer was still considerably superior to its counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic - as Wilbur Wright himself demonstrated in his 1908 tour of Europe.

As Hallion shows, however, Wilbur's tour represented the pinnacle of the Wrights' achievement. He describes the year 1909 as the year when the invention of flight ended and its refinement begins. In this phase the Europeans had a considerable advantage, for as the Wrights were pioneering flight the Europeans were focusing more on the scientific study of aerodynamics, something which Hallion sees as integral to the shift in aeronautical advancement from the New World back to the Old. Wedded to an increasingly obsolescent (and inherently dangerous) design, the Wrights no longer represented the leading edge of airplane development, one that was moving forward at a dramatic rate. Before the First World War ended, airplanes were already demonstrating speed, endurance, and applications that most people take for granted today but which almost none of the early pioneers had imagined were possible.

Yet while Hallion's book is one of the best histories of its subject, at times it suffers from an excess of detail. Hallion's knowledge of virtually every nugget of information is reflected in the text, even if it adds little to the reader's understanding of aeronautics. Hallion's book also suffers from his tendency to overemphasize the historical impact of the airplane, especially in the First World War, implying, for example, that the course of events at the battles of Tannenberg and the Marne was altered because of the use of airplanes, yet he offers no evidence to substantiate this claim beyond stressing the role the planes played as scouts while understating the other sources of information available to the commanders. These flaws, however, don't detract from the book's overall value as a description of humanity's long journey to flight and how ultimately it was achieved.