The airplane; easily one of most influential inventions of the 20th century, if not all time. Let’s be honest, nothing has come along that has revolutionized our world as much as aviation. Granted, the internet is a pretty decent invention, it didn’t shrink the world as much as it did connect it. Air travel really made this world small, changing travel times from months to hours. A question I’ve posed is how would the world differ if the airplane would have never been invented? To answer this, we need to dive into the history and making of the airplane, and its growth throughout the past 112 years.
Flight has been in the dreams and imaginations of man as long as history can tell. For ages, people believed that sticking feathers to their arms would help them fly. Unfortunately those who believed that failed tremendously. It wasn’t until somewhat recently when man took to the air in a craft heavier than air. Most people believe that the Wright brothers invented the airplane. Now, it is true that they were the first humans to achieve heavier-than-air flight, (although there is an interesting argument that a New Zealand aviator made a successful flight twice as long as the Wright’s several months prior), but they certainly were not the first, or only people who were working on flying.
In fact, a dozen or so people had already made flights in heavier-than-air crafts, but these crafts had no engines, and therefore served no practical purpose other than for the advancement in aeronautics and heavier-than-air flight. Even then people had been flying in dirigibles and balloons for close to 1000 years. The first recorded glider flight occurred in 1010, when an English monk jumped from a tower and glided 200 meters. He was injured but lived to tell the tale, making this a tremendous step forward in flight. However, a safe, sustained, manned flight did not occur until the 18th century, when the Montgolfier brothers made the first successful hot air balloon flight. Europe is accredited with the majority of the advancements in aviation in the pre-Wright era days, with many successful balloon and dirigible flights, as well as pioneering the advancement of gliding. Otto Lilienthal was one of these great pioneers. He made countless successful flights in his gliders, but tragically, died while flying. On his deathbed, he is quoted as saying “sacrifices must be made.”
The Wright brothers were a peculiar pair of brothers. Born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, they started a small bicycle shop, and shortly thereafter became enthralled in aviation. They built kites, gliders, wind tunnels, and many, many models, all to help their process of achieving powered, heavier-than-air flight. On December 17th, 1903, they achieved what no man had done before: lift a powered craft heavier-than-air off the earth in a controlled manner, and return back safely. After this, aviation took off. It took less than 10 years for aircraft to break the 10,000 foot mark, and less than 30 for all metal aircraft to make their way into the skies. It only took a blistering 69 years for man to go from a 120 ft flight, to traveling the 238,900 miles to the moon. That is astonishing. Nothing, other than electronics (due in part to aviation) has evolved and grown faster than any other invention in history.
Now, what would life be like if the airplane never existed? A scary question indeed, but one that begs to be asked. Well, first off, things would be very, very slow. It would take hours to get places that once took a matter of minutes, it would take almost a week to make it across the country, and making it to transatlantic and transpacific destinations around the world would take months. We would still be in the 1990’s in terms of technology, because of the airplane, stronger and more advanced computers and softwares came along to help airplanes fly longer, farther, higher, more accurately, and more efficiently. Also, lots of people would be dead as a result of auto accidents and other incidents in remote places where help could not be received. Helicopters are an efficient and effective tool at transporting the injured quickly and safely to hospitals in the area, reducing the time of travel, and increasing the patient’s chance of living. War would be radically different, as airpower would be non-existent, the scouting of enemy movements wouldn’t be possible, and all war would be fought on the ground, taking time, resources, and lives.
We would have never gone to the moon, either. Aviation led directly to the development of space rockets, as well as brought us satellites that provide TV, satellite radio, mobile messaging, navigation systems in cars and on phones, modern accurate maps, and information and knowledge about our universe. Our economy would be significantly slower, as items couldn’t be moved as quickly and perishable items wouldn’t be able to make the long trip by land without going bad, or without large amounts of equipment keeping them cool. Movies would be bland, as aerial shots would be non-existent. Finally, the beauty and joy of flight would only be experienced by the birds, and the dream of flight would remain just that, a dream, forgotten by the early pioneers, and ignored by a society.
The airplane is without a doubt the most influential invention of the 20th century, simply because it shrunk the world. It has connected nations that would have never been connected otherwise, and shown us a new, unseen and spectacular perspective of our earth. The airplane has come a very long way since 1903, and still has a ways to go, but nothing comes close to the utility it brings to our fast paced and modern world, and nothing will in the forseeable future.