|An American "Clipper" as advanced compared to the ships of Columbus as a modern jumbo jet is compared to a Wright Flyer|
Commercial sailing technology would reach its zenith in the late nineteenth century about the same time that steam engines would mature driving railroads and river boats to a point where commercial ship operators were prepared to use them at sea. Man had taken the air foil in vertical deployment about as far as it would go for commercial transport , and the air foil or sail had taken man around the world and back again many times over.
As mariners, ship wrights, naval architects and sail makers studied the function of sail , or the air foil in vertical deployment, it was very early on realized that the sail functions by channeling wind towards the "Luff" which is a fairly narrow area near the mast. High pressure forms on the windward side of the sail and low pressure on the leeward or opposite side. Air moves from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. But the sail prevents the high pressure from infilling the low pressure area and a force known as "drive" is created. The mast is set in the hull which is set afloat in the low resistance medium of water. The "drive" exerted near the mast propels the boat forward. Notice that even the square sails on the clipper ship above can be rotated around the mast almost 180 degrees producing at least some drive on all points of sail. In between the square sails are numerous triangular sails which are more efficient sailing closer to the wind. The sail plan was based on a law of averages but consistently produced excellent speeds on all points of sale.
Now every sailor who ever had to furl sail knew that an air foil if it got into a horizontal plane could exert a force known as "Lift". A wing is simply an airfoil deployed in the horizontal mode. But lift and drive were very well understood by 1903. In 1903 the steamship was dominant in maritime commerce but there were still plenty of square riggers working when the Wright Brothers turned their airfoils into the horizontal position , attached power for a constant source of air flow for the creation of "lift". The Wright Brothers soon learned that control after lift off was the most difficult. At first they tried "wing warping" or changing the shape of the wing to control direction and altitude which was pretty much what sailors did with sails by use of the running rigging such as sheet lines. Soon they opted to change only a portion of the wing's basic shape through the use of ailerons, stabilizers, and the ship's rudder's cousin, the tail rudder. The world began to shrink at a much faster pace. Only 66 years after man's first heavier than air flight we landed on the moon. Truly sometimes a great notion is as simple as a mere shape and may come from someone as simple as an ancient sailor.
I would tell my students after leading them through this exercise that mariners are part of an ancient and learned profession. Our profession's discoveries gave the world, the world; sewed it together and then gave it flight. Then I'd give them this little known fact. When the Wright Brothers made their first flight at Kitty Hawk the hands that gave their flyer its initial push off were those of sailors of the nearby U.S. Life Saving Service Station, one of the ancestral organizations of the U.S. Coast Guard. Once the ''Wright Flyers" became controllable in flight one of the first purchasers was the United States Navy. If you visit Dalghren Hall on the grounds of the Naval Academy you can see the Navy's original Wright Flyer: suspended from the ceiling.
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