Saturday, December 18, 2010

17 December 1903/1935: Two Dates When Aviation Changed the World (with some thoughts on the Wright Bros., the DC-3, and the personal computer)

Today is the anniversary of the date in 1903 when the Wright brothers famously changed history with "the first powered, controlled, sustained flight" (note:  all the adjectives are important) at Kitty Hawk.

For the occasion, NASA offers a beautiful image of the 1999 replica in a wind tunnel, where the flight characteristics of the craft were analyzed:

As the repository of the nation's collective memory, the Library of Congress gives us a photo of the historic event itself:

We feature a December 17, 1903 photograph of the first powered, controlled, sustained flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville Wright is seen at the controls of the machine, while Wilbur Wright, running alongside to balance the airplane, has just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. This image from a glass plate negative is but one of some 200 Wright Brothers Negatives which document their successes and failures with their new flying machines. The collection also contains individual portraits and group pictures of the Wright brothers and their family and friends, as well as photos of their homes, other buildings, towns, and landscapes.
The 1903 event is the sort of thing that shows up on every calendar of major historical anniversaries.  Less well known, but hardly less consequential is what happened on that date in 1935. Today is the 107th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' historic flight, but it's also the 75th anniversary of the introduction of the DC-3.

Over at Wired, Autopia provides a handsome tribute to what it rightly calls the machine "largely seen as the airplane to popularize air travel" and "perhaps the best known military transport ever."

The US military ordered over 10,000 of the planes, which (under C-47 and other designations) were the workhorses of World War II but continued to serve as transports and specially modified gunships down through the Vietnam era. In fact, approximately 400 are said to be still in service around the world for purposes ranging from combat to fire-fighting and commuter travel.

To give you an idea of just how significant this aircraft was, think of it in relation to the personal computer (the analogy is meant to be suggestive rather than ruthlessly rigorous).  The DC-3 appeared in 1935, only 32 years after the Wright Brothers' famous flight, and although it was in production for only 11 years, until 1946, it remained in wide use for at least a generation after that.

As chance would have it, just as the last DC-3 was coming off the production line, the computer, stimulated by wartime needs, was really taking off with the announcement of ENIAC, "the first general-purpose electronic computer, in 1946, and the invention of the transistor in 1947.  Some three decades after that figurative "Wright Brothers moment" in computing, we find the breakthroughs to the consumer market—the equivalent of the "DC-3 moment": the founding of Microsoft (1975) and Apple (1976), and the launch of the early personal computers—the Commodore PET 2001, the Apple II, and the Radio Shack TRS-80 (in 1977)—and the development of Intel's 8086 processor (1978).  Those early consumer computers had all of 4 kB RAM.  That's right, no typo: 4, not 40 or 400. (see, e.g., 1, 2, 3)  Now, imagine that those Commodore PET 2001's and Apple II's were still in widespread use at the start of the twenty-first century, and you'd have a sense of the endurance and influence of the DC-3.

As best I can recall, it was in a DC-3 that I, as a child, made my first airplane flight. These planes were so good, so rugged, so reliable, that they were still used on some regional passenger routes down to the 1970s.  Didn't seem like anything special back then.  Now I know better.  Better late than never.  That's one of the advantages of history.
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