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  • Did the Wright Brothers Need the Government to Make Man Fly?

    Forget entrepreneurs, captains of industry, inventors, and scientists. According to Obama Energy Secretary Steven Chu, we have the U.S. government to thank for all the wonders of technology.

    In a speech yesterday at Senator Harry Reid’s National Clean Energy Summit, Chu showed America his true colors–and the philosophical bent of the Department of Energy under the Obama Administration–when he delivered a speech praising government’s involvement in the growth of technologies (even helping airplanes get off the ground). In Chu’s words (which you can watch at the 30:50 mark, above):

    So the government played an incredibly intimate role in all the technologies that led to prosperity in the United States, and we must not lose sight of that fact.

    Chu traced a history of government involvement in helping to create markets for airplanes (in his view, the Wright brothers would have been nothing without the U.S. government and the postal service), the U.S. semiconductor industry, the Internet, and productivity of American agriculture. Victor Joecks at the Nevada Policy Research Institute blog writes about Chu’s view of history:

    Of course, the Wright brothers invented [powered flight], Chu says, but if it weren’t for military spending or allowing private companies to deliver the U.S. mail (amazing how he considers deregulation to be “intimate” government involvement, but I digress), no doubt airplanes would have faded away.

    There’s a curious fact of history that Chu leaves out. Harry P. Wolfe and John Semmens explain that before the Wright brothers’ famous flight (which they funded without government help), Dr. Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institution used a $70,000 U.S. government grant to create an airplane. What happened? It crashed into the Potomac River, the Wright brothers succeeded in their flight nine days later, and Langley laid much of the blame on “inadequate” Federal funding. So much for government’s “intimate role” in technology.

    That story didn’t make it into Chu’s lecture, and with good reason. Chu is advocating for greater government spending in alternative energy–a ”sunshot program,” the Obama Administration’s modern day answer to Kennedy’s Moonshot Program. Obama’s plan is designed to spur the growth of alternative energy, while also creating jobs. The trouble is, neither of which are being accomplished.

    The Nevada Journal reports that, according to the state’s Department of Energy, $47.2 million in federal grants through the Stimulus program have only created or saved 35.86 jobs in the state. And nationally, the green jobs myth is a bust, as well. The New York Times printed a harsh assessment of the state of the “green” economy—including a conclusion that the President’s promise to create five million green jobs over 10 years has proven to be nothing more than “a pipe dream.” And today, a California-based solar panel manufacturer that received $535 million in taxpayer money from the U.S. Department of Energy and $1.1 billion in private venture capital funding shut down, leaving 1,100 people out of work. The reason? It couldn’t compete in the marketplace.

    There are some things the government can do, and there are some things it can’t. When it comes to inventing new technologies and bringing them to market, at the end of the day, those that succeed are those that are commercially viable. No matter what Chu may think about the power of the federal government, there are some things it just can’t do.

    Posted in Featured [slideshow_deploy]

    7 Responses to Did the Wright Brothers Need the Government to Make Man Fly?

    1. Rick says:

      In fact the US Government was very slow to address the offers of the Wrights and it was only after receiving offers from a syndicate in Europe that the US Army finally made an agreement with the Wrights.

      Had the US Government treated the Wrights properly, many lives would probably have been saved in the development of the airplane and the US would not have lost it's advantage in aviation to the Europeans by WWi.

    2. Check this video out on the story of Sam Langley and the Wright brothers and the animosity between them in the invention of flight : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXobVt4k2Tg

      You hit the nail on the head with this article.

    3. Chris says:

      B-b-b-but, you're intimating that the "god" of Federal Government can't know and do absolutely everything simply by Imperial Fiat? The Holy Writ of Government Regulations is not in itself all-sufficient?

      Oh my goodness, I feel my faith beginning to wane, my knees becoming weak and knocking together in fear and my head growing faint at the prospect that I, me-myself-and-I, might have to actually hitch up my britches and become personally responsible for creating and producing actual goods and services from with others – and society – might benefit.

      That's a world-changing paradigm shift….I don't know if I'm ready for that yet…

    4. Dan Brosman says:

      The government pumped tons of money into Langley's failed project to fly. He never did.

    5. mort_f says:

      Rick is only showing the tip of the iceberg. At the time of WWI, the US aircraft industry was near zero, in fact all of our fliers in WWI had to use French and British aircraft, there were no US aircaft worthy of the name 'combat aircraft', with the exception of a few Curtiss flying boats.

      It was only after the US government got out of the mail business, albeit providing a subsidy for private mail carriers, that our aviation industry really 'took off'. One should note that the Boeing B-17 was a private venture, which, fortunately, some Air Corps people could ee the future, and were able to purchase a few. The bulk of that government contract went to a useless aircraft.

    6. Guest says:

      All of this sounds good; however, the aviation industry was still fed most of its money by – guess who, the government, through military spending. Not exactly "the private marketplace."

    7. dphuntsman says:

      I think people are talking around the real issues here.

      Within NASA these last couple of years a big discussion has been the role of government in developing new commercial space industries. NASA's Senior Advisor for Commercial Space at NASA HQ has a presentation he gives that puts these things in perspective, including what government roles tend to have the best bang for the buck, using the development of aviation as an example. Some of his main points:
      1. Funding Dr. Langley was not- BY ITSELF – a dumb thing to do. Without question, in terms of credentials et al, he was the single most likely person in the US to come up with a practical solution.
      2. THe issue is NOT the Langely was invovled -but that ONLY Langely was getting government support. In short, like NASA (of which I am a 37 year employee) too often does today, the government tried to pick one winner, one person to come up with the perfect answer.
      3. ;And he was NOT underfunded. The contract he received was the largest government R*D contract in history – and he still over-ran it by something like 50% before failing catastrophically. When their one hand-picked guy failed, the government shut down ALL other efforts.
      4. The Wright Brothers succeeded right afterwards, spending only about $1000 of their own money (not counting their own time).

      LESSON: THe government, in trying to jump start industries, should act in a way to encourage as many Wright Brother possibilities as possible; and stop the natural bureaucratic tendency to put all bets on a single horse that, if it fails like Langley, could doom all other government efforts.

      5. Government actions were critical in later years. By 1915 the US had lost the leadership the Wrights had given us in the world, leading to the creation of NASA's predecessor, NACA.
      6. NACA's greatest influence happened in its first ten years, when it had no money, and no full-time employees. The legal patent log-jam between the Wrights and Curtiss, for example – which had brought US aviation development to a halt – was broken through NACA diplomacy of the warring legal parties, cross-licensings that allowed US aviation to start on its forward path again. (The Wrights, having spent $1,000 on creating the airplane, spent $100,000 in legal fees fighting Curtis!)
      NACA then fought for many other things: it was the primary advocate in the government for what later became airmail and the Kelly Airmail Act, to create markets that the new industry could serve; it developed technology and freely gave it to all companies; it improved coordination between the nascent industry and all government agencies; etc. etc.

      Let's make sure we learn the right lessons from history.

      Dave Huntsman
      Commercial Space Development

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