An apocalyptic scene

Book Reviews

The future’s bleak, according to a raft of new books, but technology might be a solution as well as the cause of the problem.


Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies 

By Lawrence Goldstone, $28.00, ISBN 978 0 345 53803 1

The ancient Greek legend of the master craftsman Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus – who attempted to fly using wings made of feathers and wax – reminds us of how ancient is the allure of becoming a ‘birdman’. Aristotle, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton and other great minds gave serious consideration to the scientific possibility of mechanical flight; Newton concluded that it was impossible.

Even as late as 1868, after the pioneering experiments by engineer George Cayley with a pedal-powered, fixed-wing glider, the annual report of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain admitted: “With respect to the abstruse question of mechanical flight, it may be stated that we are still ignorant of the rudimentary principles which should form the basis and rules for construction.” Then, in a breathtakingly short period, mechanical flight advanced from nothing in 1903 – the date of the first sustained, stable flight by the amateur Wright Brothers in the US – to the point where aeroplanes were capable of armed combat on the outbreak of war in 1914.

The highly readable ‘Birdmen’ by Lawrence Goldstone, a New York-based author, is a detailed yet essentially non-technical history of that innovative decade. With a large cast of characters – but regrettably few portraits and photographs – it concentrates on the story of Wilbur and Orville Wright and their bitter, protracted, ultimately self-destructive struggle to control their patent on wing design, most notably with engine designer and rival aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. Goldstone gives plenty of attention to European aviators, such as Louis Blériot, the first person to fly the English Channel, and Brazilian-born Alberto Santos-Dumont, designer of the first practical dirigible, who circled the Eiffel Tower in his airship in 1901.

As Goldstone is acutely aware, the feud between the Wrights and Curtiss continues to divide historians. Either the Wrights are seen as “brilliant visionaries and honest toilers” whose ideas were stolen by Curtiss and others without acknowledgement or financial recompense, or they are “rapacious misanthropes who were all too happy to stop progress in its tracks by stifling brilliant innovators”. His book provides evidence for both the prosecution and the defence – not least the telling fact that while the Wright Company did not allow their pilots to keep any of the prize money they won in airshows, often at the risk of their lives, the Curtiss Company shared half the prize.

Because of the Wrights’ obsession with protecting their patent, they came nowhere near Curtiss, who is credited with the seaplane, retractable landing gear, twist-grip throttles for motorcycles, dual controls, the enclosed cockpit, the step pontoon, the watertight compartment, the airboat and machines to manufacture aeroplane components. It is a perhaps fitting irony that, after the Wrights and Curtiss were no longer associated with their companies through premature death or retirement, in 1929 the two companies merged to form Curtiss-Wright, the largest aviation holding company in the US.

Andrew Robinson


Underlands: A Journey Through Britain’s Lost Landscape 

By Ted Nield, £20.00, ISBN 978 1 84708 671 6

Anyone who has been a rock and mineral hunter in Britain will be both informed and enchanted by ‘Underlands’, a personal memoir by Ted Nield with an important scientific message. The great-grandson of a Welsh coal miner from Aberfan, Nield is a geologist who worked for a while in North Sea oil exploration before becoming a writer; he is also editor of Geoscientist, the monthly magazine of the Geological Society of London.

For me the book revives boyhood memories of picking over the remains of abandoned quarries and mine spoil heaps in England, Wales and Scotland. Nield describes a typical field excursion in the 1970s to a former mining area in Wales: “Knowing that still-uncapped mineshafts and open hillside adits lay dotted about the woods excited me. The branch-choked depths of the rotting water system’s many ponds, races, leats and sloughs were unfenced. No notices warned of the deep water they contained. No rusting bridges had been taped off or torn down. There was nothing tame about it. It was what it was...”

Much of Nield’s training occurred in such abandoned underground excavations. He likes to compare them with the traditional sacredness of caves. At Delphi, the ancient Greek oracle was a priestess who is now thought to have breathed intoxicating exhalations of ethylene gas from an active geological fault running beneath Delphi. “This idea, of holes in the ground peopled by priestly intermediaries full of enthusiasm and even ecstasy, offering interpretations of the past that might also serve as predictions of the future, to my mind presents a fairly apt description of a party of geologists in a quarry,” muses Nield more than half-seriously.

But who is listening to the geologists now that Britain no longer mines and quarries as it once did? Instead of extracting our own resources, Britain imports building stone from as far afield as China because it is cheaper, other than atmospheric damage caused by transport.

During the past half-century, Nield argues, “we have banished mine and quarry and spoil heap, gravel pit and brickyard”, and lost our visceral familiarity with the “underlands”. In 1966, the National Coal Board was deaf to geology before the colliery spoil-heap disaster at Aberfan, which could easily have buried young Ted in the stricken school had his family still been living in the village. Today, almost all of us are guilty of ignoring the geological warnings of future catastrophic climate change, says Nield, having reviewed the high silica content of the Hertfordshire Puddingstone as evidence for a massive global warming 55 million years ago after an unexplained sharp rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil sources. An immeasurably larger heap of waste carbon than the one above Aberfan threatens our global village. This 21st-century spoil heap is, however, invisible.

Andrew Robinson

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