Former Smithsonian consultant Singer debuts with a panoptic exploration of the motivation and ingenuity that have marked our urge to fly.
Getting humans aloft wasn't simply a matter of a bunch of inventive guys getting their heads together, borrowing here and there from the scientists in the past, and taming the physics of it all, Singer writes. No simple progression led inexorably to the Wright Brothers, but a wonderful tangle, a wildly braided stream of literature, religion, and art; liberation and redemption; sexuality and power. The author limns these strands in ample detail for so small a work, also examining how we harnessed the intellect to the service of the emotions. Singer works carefully back and forth through the ages, suggesting influences and context, taking account of the early role of dreams and mythology, flight as natural metaphor for communing with the spiritual and supernatural, the need for escape and freedom from authority. The Scientific Revolution shifts the emphasis to materialism and quantification, tentatively contesting the ungovernable fields of religion and aesthetics while frequently tipping its hat to the Inquisitor. Singer then tackles inventiveness: “aptitude, curiosity, inventiveness, luck—plus perception of a need or desire, societal support,” a support, she notes, that cannot be found in the glory of being the first to fly. Monetary rewards certainly might accrue, and there were many struggles along these fronts: much stealing of ideas, ugly skirmishes over patent rights. But even more compelling was the age-old desire to break the earthly bonds, sample the sexual angle, taste the narrative of the myth. Of course, those who seek possible financial windfalls generously allude to these elements in their advertising: just look at the young woman riding that bomb on the book’s cover.
Able presentation of the piquant stew of emotional, literary, artistic, religious, and technological considerations that spurred—and spurred and spurred—the will to human flight. (22 b&w photos)