June 09, 2008

If I have seen further [than certain other men] it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
- Sir Isaac Newton


In 1802, Sir Humphry Davy invented the very first incandescent light, using a strip of glowing platinum; the arc lamp followed in 1809. James Lindsey demonstrated a constant electric light in 1835, and Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin demonstrated actual incandescent light bulbs in 1851. Patents for incandescent light bulbs using carbon filaments were obtained by John W. Starr (1845) and A. N. Lodygin (1872). Yet today, hundreds of thousands of educators teach their students how Edison invented the light bulb. (He was, however, the first to make the incandescant light commercially viable, in 1879.)

In July of 1919, the British dirigible R-34 made the first successful transatlantic crossing by an airship ... after the planned crossing of rhe German Zeppelin L-72, upon which it was very closely modelled, was vetoed by the winning powers of World War I. (The original reason the L-72 had been designed to cross the Atlantic was to bomb New York City.) British dirigibles, like American ones, used helium. The reason the Zeppelins were forced to use hydrogen rather than helium was because helium was a restricted wartime commodity, and its major sources and reserves were in the United States.

Until July 4, 1836, only American citizens who were resident on American soil were allowed to take out United States patents (though as of 1832, new immigrants could take out a one-year patent if they could demonstrate an intent to become American citizens). One of those denied an American patent on this basis was the inventor of the marine screw propeller, John Patch (1833), who later died in a poorhouse. Josip Ressel received an Austrian-only patent in 1827, but after an 1829 Trieste harbour explosion further experimenting was banned by the local police. U.S. Patent 1943934 for a marine screw propeller was taken out in January 1934 by Telfer Edmund Victor (listed on the New York passenger lists as Edmund Victor Telfer). The British Francis Pettit Smith contests with Frédéric Sauvage and John Ericsson, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Coincidence? Theft? Protectionist blockades? International espionage? Or just an idea waiting to happen?

In 1958, the first and last Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow took to the skies. This delta-wing interceptor aircraft was arguably the most advanced fighter of its time, and might still have held that title today ... had any remained in existence. However, in 1957 a new party and a new prime minister had come into power. Under Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker, Canada signed the NORAD agreements, under which it was told it would no longer need its own aircraft to defend its soil, since the United States would supply its own. Instead, in 1959, the entire program was cancelled, with all five completed test models, parts, and the linked Orenda Iroquois jet engines destroyed, down to the last blueprints. (In Great Britain, the 1957 Defence White Paper had a similar effect, but without the political extremes.) Suddenly out of a job, many of the Avro senior engineers went to work for Hawker Siddeley, eventually giving birth to the Concorde, or for NASA, whose space shuttle bears some interesting design similarities to the vanished Avro Arrow.

Upon such considerations, progress is made, history is written, and the mythology of the self-made man is born.

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