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A hilarious nonfiction look at two of history's most epic "failures": the Wright brothers, whose countless crashes ultimately led to groundbreaking success.
Although Orville and Wilbur Wright are celebrated today as heroes for their revolutionary contributions to science and engineeringthey are acknowledged as the first men to successfully achieve powered, piloted flighttheir success was hard-earned. (Spoiler alert: there were a lot of nosedives involved.) In fact, it took the self-taught engineers years of work and dozens of crashes before they managed a single twelve-second flight!
In this first installment of the brand new Epic Fails series, Ben Thompson and Erik Slader take readers through the Wright brothers' many mishaps and misadventures as they paved the way for modern aviation.
The Epic Fails series takes a humorous and unexpected view of history, exploring the surprising stories behind a variety of groundbreaking discoveries, voyages, experiments, and innovations, illustrating how many of mankind's biggest successes are in fact the result of some pretty epic failures.
This title has Common Core connections.
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About the Author
Ben Thompson is the author of a dozen books on various awesome historical subjects including the Guts & Glory series, and has appeared on television programs for the History Channel, Discovery, and the American Heroes Channel. He has written for Cracked, Fangoria, Soldier of Fortune, and The American Mustache Institute, currently owns four swords (if you count a letter opener shaped like Glamdring the Foe-Hammer), and can occasionally beat the Star Wars Trilogy arcade game with a single quarter.
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog (and podcast) about the most epic fails… of history. With Ben Thompson, Erik is the coauthor of the Epic Fails book series, including The Wright Brothers: Nose-Diving Into History and Race to Space: Countdown to Liftoff.
Read an Excerpt
Learning to Fall
500 BCE–1665 CE
"There is an art to flying ...The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
— Douglas Adams (Life, the Universe and Everything)
Since the dawn of time, mankind has looked to the skies and dreamed of doing the impossible: soaring effortlessly through the air with the grace of a bird, banking and gliding hundreds of feet above the Earth. It's a dream humans have clung to since the beginning of written language, dating back to the ancient Greek myth of Icarus, a tale about a boy who was able to escapethe tower of an evil king by flying out his prison window on a pair of birdlike wings his father built for him out of feathers and wax.
Of course, Icarus was also the earliest recorded Epic Fail of human flight. Because he was having so much fun flying around like a maniac, Icarus climbed too high in the sky, and the sun melted the wax holding his feathered wings together. The wings disintegrated, and Icarus plummeted hundreds of feet to his untimely death. People today still use the expression "don't fly too close to the sun" when they try to warn you not to do something stupid.
Despite the cautionary tale of Icarus, peoplestill tried to figure out how to make a man fly. As you might have noticed, this isn't a particularly easy thing to do. Humans aren't really designed to fly through the air like beakless pterodactyls. We don't have wings, we don't have jetpacks embedded in our feet, we aren't particularly graceful animals, and we don't draw power from Earth's yellow sun as Superman does when he flies. So where do you start?
In 852 CE a daredevil inventor named Armen Firman tried to get it done straight up Icarus-style. He put on a huge cloak with wooden struts holding it open (it kind of looked like a wingsuit), wallpapered it in feathers, and jumped off the tallest tower in Córdoba, Spain. Much to his surprise, but to no one else's, he plummeted to the ground almost immediately. As he was falling, however, something interesting happened — his homemade glider caught the wind for a moment, and it actually slowed his fall a little. It didn't slow Armen down enough that he didn't break nearly every bone in his body, but sometimes making discoveries can be quite painful.
This wacky stunt inspired a scholar named Abbas Ibn Firnas to spend his life pursuing what it would really take to glide in the wind. Abbas was a Muslim mathematician, engineer, chemist, and inventor who had designed everything from water clocks to astronomical star charts. Abbas may have witnessed Armen Firman's flight (in fact, the history here is so sketchy that he and Firman might have even been the same guy) and decided to spend the next several decades studying the flight of birds, their wingspans, and their graceful movements through the air.
At the age of sixty-five, a full twenty-three years after Armen Firman's "flight," Abbas Ibn Firnas constructed a glider of silk, wood, and vulture feathers; ignored the naysayers who told him he was just going to splat himself like a water balloon; and made his way to the tallest cliff he could find. Fueled by determination, and with a large crowd from Córdoba watching from a nearby cliff, Abbas Ibn Firnas got a running start and took a flying leap of faith.
To the shock and surprise of the onlookers, Abbas Ibn Firnas did not immediately fall screaming to a painful death below. Instead, he glided through the air, soaring like a bird for an impressive amount of time. But Abbas's elation soon gave way to a pressing concern ... because despite all the work he'd put into figuring out taking off and gliding through the air, he hadn't put much thought into how to actually maneuver the glider — or, perhaps more important, how to land it. Without any control over his descent, the poor guy came crashing to the ground like an oversize paper airplane.
Ibn Firnas did survive his unfortunate crash, but he hurt his back so badly he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life and never tried to fly again. Nowadays, there's a crater on the moon named after him, in honor of his achievement — although possibly in homage to the crater he left when he smacked into the ground like Wile E. Coyote.
Over the centuries that followed, others kept the dream of flight alive, but with little success. An English monk named Roger Bacon hypothesized the possibility of a "flying engine" in 1260, but he never actually built one. In the 1300s Italian explorer Marco Polo wrote of Chinese kites that could hoist a man into the air, although he didn't bring one of those kites back to Europe and was known for making up more than a few details about his trips, so who knows. In 1507 Italian John Damian covered himself in chicken feathers and tried to fly off Stirling Castle in Scotland, but no matter how hard he flapped his arms, he just rocketed toward the ground like a big flesh-colored rock. It wasn't a soft landing for poor Mr. Damian.
It would seem that before man would learn to fly, he'd have to learn how to fall. And probably also how to land.
Besnier the Locksmith
Besnier was a French locksmith who became obsessed with human flight, so in 1678 he developed a harness to achieve just that. Besnier's flying apparatus looked absolutely ridiculous — it used two wooden paddles strapped to each of his limbs as part of a "flapping mechanism." The crazy thing is — it worked! Well, sort of. He managed to glide short distances surprisingly well, but longer distances proved challenging and dangerous.
An eccentric French clergyman, Pierre Desforges, was convinced humans could fly like birds if only they had wings. In 1770 he constructed a pair of wings, but instead of trying them out himself, he tried to get peasants to volunteer for him. Later on he attached a twenty-foot wingspan to a six-foot gondola and tried to soar off one of his church's lookout towers — he didn't. Instead, his gondola crashed to the ground. Miraculously, he had only a broken arm to show for it.
Clément Ader was a French inventor who invested almost all his time and money in developing experimental flying machines with little or no success. His most promising attempt, though, was a wooden and linen, bat-like steam-powered monoplane called the Avion III. The 880-pound aircraft had a fifty-two- foot wingspan. In 1897 the military gave the "aircraft" a test run. Unfortunately, the most it could do was hop a few inches off the ground. The military immediately cut funding.
Gustave Whitehead was a German aviation enthusiast who claimed to have flown his No. 21 monoplane in 1901, before the Wright brothers, but all evidence points to his design being aerodynamically unsound, and there was little evidence to back up his claim.
In 1921 aviation pioneer Gianni Caproni tried to create a flying boat. The Capronissimo Ca.60 was a nine-wing (!), eight-engine, thirty-foot-high, seventy-seven-foot-long boat with a wingspan of ninety-eight feet. It weighed 30,865 pounds! During its second test flight, soon after takeoff, the ridiculously expensive aircraft crashed into the water and completely broke apart. Caproni later commented, "The path of progress is strewn with suffering."CHAPTER 2
The Problem with Gravity
"Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."
— Leonardo da Vinci
In 1665 an English mathematician named Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree when all of a sudden an apple fell and bonked him on the head. While the first words out of his mouth were probably not the kind of words we can print in a book like this, taking an apple to the dome also gave Isaac Newton a eureka moment.
At least, that's the story. In fact, the apple episode probably never happened. But still, Newton was a supergenius scientist and a determined experimenter who changed the way people looked at the way the world works. Building off the research of famous scientists and astronomers such as Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, Newton realized that everything in the cosmos is governed by the laws of physics and that gravity is one of the things that binds the universe together.
Without getting too much into it, the mass and rotation of the Earth generates an invisible force called gravity, which pulls everything toward the ground. It's the reason stuff falls when you drop it, and it's the reason you and I don't fly off into space. It's also, unfortunately, one of the reasons flight is so hard. Newton discovered that all objects, regardless of weight, fall at the same rate — that is, unless they catch the wind or are lighter than air. He also realized that without an atmosphere, not even birds could fly. Using his laws of physics, the key to defying the power of gravity would be to use the air itself.
Easier said than done.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, an Italian artist and scientist got closer than ever before to achieving human aviation. Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but he wasn't just a famous painter. He was also a part-time inventor, architect, sculptor, cartographer, writer, historian, biologist, geologist, paleontologist, botanist, astrophysicist, and vegetarian. He wrote all his notes backward (in cursive!), invented the sniper rifle, and used to buy birds from pet stores so he could set them free outside.
Among his thousands of inventions and discoveries, Leonardo designed a number of "flying machines." In fact, more than thirty-five thousand words and five hundred sketches discovered from his notes were dedicated to the goal of human flight. He invented the concept of a parachute, designed a glider that looks like Batman's cape, and even drew schematics for a predecessor to the helicopter! Several practical and elaborate designs were thought up and sketched out by Leonardo at a time when most people still rode around on horses and fought one another with swords. Although some aeronautical engineers believe that Leonardo's human-powered flying machines may have actually worked, this multitasking genius unfortunately never had a chance to build or test any of his inventions.
It wasn't until 1783 that another leap forward was made. This time, it was two brothers, although not the ones you're probably thinking of. No, this was two Frenchmen named Joseph andÉtienne Montgolfier, who created the world's first hot air balloon. Hot air is lighter than cool air, and the brothers came to realize that by harnessing it, they could create lift (this is the "lighter than air" idea we talked about when we discussed gravity earlier). On November 21, 1783, they made history in Paris when their gigantic, seven-story-tall balloon successfully lifted the two men more than three thousand feet into the air!
Sailing through the air was pretty great, but once again that old problem of "How the heck do we land this thing?" meant that it wouldn't be a completely smooth ride. As the aeronauts drifted back toward the ground, the fire that heated the air in the balloon began to burn through the fabric, lighting the sides on fire! Together, the two men scrambled to put it out with wet sponges ... which caused further problems, because putting out the fire meant that the balloon started to fall to the ground really, really fast. The brothers had to frantically relight the flames so the balloon would get a little more lift and not smack into the ground! After what must have been a pretty terrifying adventure, the Montgolfier brothers finally reached the ground safely ... about five miles from where they were supposed to land.
The success of the Montgolfier brothers was further developed by Professor Jacques Charles, who used hydrogen instead of hot air in his balloon in 1783. Hydrogen is lighter than air, so it meant you could get better lift and wouldn't need such a huge balloon to get airborne.
It didn't take long before people started using balloons for important, practical, real-world purposes. Like fighting. In 1808 two French guys got into a fight over a lady and decided they'd solve their dispute with a duel. So they both went up in hot air balloons and started shooting at each other's balloons with their muskets. Monsieur de Grandpré won when he put a hole in Monsieur Le Pique's balloon, sending Le Pique tumbling hundreds of feet to his death. A few years after this, in 1861, during the American Civil War, Union soldier Thaddeus Lowe became the first man to use a hot air balloon in battle. Lowe flew so high that he was able to see the Confederate army, but while he was taking notes on troop positions, the balloon broke away from the rope holding it to the ground. Lowe drifted helplessly into enemy territory. When he landed, the Confederates captured him as a spy.
Throughout the late 1800s, balloons were still the only way for a person to fly. In 1873 famous French science-fiction author Jules Verne wrote a bestselling novel called Around the World in Eighty Days, which was about circling the globe in a hot air balloon, and in 1900 the awesomely named Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, from Germany, created the first dirigible, a balloon with engines that was capable of being steered.
But still, despite all this success, drifting in a balloon just isn't the same thing as flying like a bird, and dirigibles are huge, slow, and hard to maneuver. So while Zeppelin was rocking out his new invention, two brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, took humanity's first steps toward developing a real-life airplane: a controlled, powered, heavier-than-air craft that could soar through the skies like a bird.CHAPTER 3
Orville and Wilbur
"The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it."
— J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan)
Wilbur and Orville Wright were brothers, born four years apart, and they were best friends. They were the sons of Milton Wright, a pastor for the Church of the United Brethren in Christ in Dayton, Ohio, and his wife, Susan. Milton was a loving father who'd grown up on the frontier and taught his children the value of self-reliance and hard work, but he was also a lifelong reader and kept an extensive library of literary classics, history books, and encyclopedias.
When Wilbur and Orville were kids, their father brought home a toy that sparked their imaginations: a small, primitive helicopter made from wood and rubber bands, based on a design by French aviation engineer Alphonse Pénaud. The brothers played with it until it broke, and then they built one out of stuff they found around the house and kept right on going. Even at an early age, they were hooked on the idea of building something that would fly.
Both boys were smart, capable, and determined, but they had very different personalities. Wilbur, the older brother, was soft-spoken, straitlaced, and generally stoic. He was remarkably intelligent, had a strong personal drive, and dressed in well-tailored suits. His younger brother, Orville, on the other hand, was more outgoing and fiery. Orville grew a big, bushy mustache, played the mandolin, made homemade candy, and was often cheerfully optimistic and temperamental. In school, Orville was typically described as a class clown and a bit of a troublemaker. He even got expelled once! You wouldn't think these two personalities would go together well, but Orville always listened to his older brother, and that helped keep things in line.
Wilbur did excellently in high school and was considering Yale for college, but his plans were dashed one fateful day when he was playing ice hockey and took a hockey stick to his face, smashing out most of his teeth, laying him out, and injuring him so badly he had to drop out of school to recover. Orville, worried about his brother, dropped out as well and never returned.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Epic Fails The Wright Brothers: Nose-diving into History"
Copyright © 2018 Erik Slader and Ben Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Failure at Kitty Hawk,
Chapter 1: Learning to Fall,
Chapter 2: The Problem with Gravity,
Chapter 3: Orville and Wilbur,
Chapter 4: Destiny Calls,
Chapter 5: The First Attempt,
Chapter 6: A Flight of Failure,
Chapter 7: If at First You Don't Succeed ...,
Chapter 8: Fourth Time's a Charm,
Chapter 9: It's a Bird, It's a Biplane!,
Chapter 10: The Wright Stuff-Pioneers of the Sky,
Excerpt: The Race to Space,
Other Books in the Epic Fails Series,
About the Authors and Illustrator,