August 12, 2016
Summer book preview: The Anatomy of Inequality
by Melville House
“Inequality” is the word of the moment. In The Anatomy of Inequality, Swedish economist Per Molander considers the phenomenon of inequality in terms of its causes, effects, and possible solutions, looking to concrete examples from cultural history, music, literature, and social science to examine why the wealthiest societies tend also to be the most unequal — and to ask what might be done about it.
In this lightly adapted excerpt from the book, Molander considers the birth of aviation as a historical moment that might shed some light on struggles for greater equality. Read it, think it over, and get ready to grab your copy — The Anatomy of Inequality hits bookstore shelves on August 30.
On December 17, 1903, in a field in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers—Wilbur and Orville—became the first people in history to leave the ground and pilot an independent, heavier-than-air flying machine. Around lunch time, after they each took a few short flights, Wilbur managed to keep the machine in the air for a distance of 250 meters. Orville’s words marked this modest beginning:
It was nevertheless the first time in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it had started.
This event had enormous implications for fields as wide-ranging as security policy, international trade, and the spread of contagious diseases. There are many insights to be gathered about knowledge-building and design principles from the story of how we learned to fly.
The Wright brothers were not alone in their ambitions. In the United States and in other countries, many groups were trying to be the rst to get a heavier-than-air machine into the sky. The main competitor in the United States was a group led by Samuel Pierpont Langley, an influential secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Langley’s group nearly succeeded in getting an unmanned plane into the air in May 1896 and convinced the federal government to put up funds for the project — starting with the then-considerable sum of $25,000. After many difficulties and failures, two test flights were made on October 7 and December 8, 1903. Both attempts were disastrous; each time the Aerodrome, as it was called, plunged into the Potomac River as soon as it left the launch pad. Ten days after this attempt, the Wright brothers’ flying machine was in the air.
Why did the Wright brothers succeed and Langley’s group meet with disaster? Clearly, it had nothing to do with their resources. The federal project would end up costing around $70,000 before it was terminated. Wilbur Wright estimated their expenses to have been less than $1,000. Ample material resources are no guarantee for success.
For the duration of the project, Langley was obsessed with developing an efficient motor, where performance was measured by the amount of horsepower per kilogram of the engine’s weight. His extremely competent head engineer, Charles Manly, ended up installing a motor that could deliver more than 50 horsepower but weighed under 90 kilograms. With less than 2 kilograms per horsepower, it was by far the most advanced motor in use as part of the mission to develop a flying machine at the time, and it was four times as efficient as the Wright brothers’.
Though Langley’s motor was a brilliant feat of engineering, the plane’s design left something to be desired. But Langley stuck to his 1896 design, which resembled a monstrous dragonfly. Its bowed wings were inspired by bird’s wings but had not been developed using systematic trials. Langley was sure the machine would fly if only he had a good enough motor.
The Wright brothers approached the problem from a completely different angle. They started by building kites and learned about aerodynamics through trial and error. The knowledge they were building on came primarily from Otto Lilienthal, who had experimented with hang-gliders and died in an accident during a trial run in 1896. Lilienthal in turn was building on aerodynamic research conducted by the eighteenth-century British engineer John Smeaton. The Wright brothers became increasingly dissatisfied with Lilienthal’s data, so they conducted small-scale experiments on optimum wing shape in their own workshop. In numerous experiments, they learned how to adjust the altitude and to turn. Only when they believed they were done with the aerodynamic design did they begin to think about the motor. They contacted a few manufacturers with their performance and weight specifications, which were far more modest than Langley’s. Dissatisfied with the responses, they decided to build their own motor out of parts from the local forge. It was installed, and then they had liftoff.
The first lesson from Kitty Hawk is that success hinges on understanding the system you want to influence: how it behaves, its dynamics and peculiarities. Langley was right in thinking that there was a minimum performance requirement on the motor for the plane to be able to achieve liftoff, but he was wrong in thinking that this was the most significant constraint in aircraft design. The Wright brothers realized that the fundamental problem was one of aerodynamics and made solving it their priority. Only when they had developed a near-perfect maneuverable kite did they begin to tackle the motor.
Though the art of flying differs from both political philosophy and practical politics, the experiences at Kitty Hawk are still relevant. Knowing the system you wish to influence is just as important in all three arenas. The social sciences are lagging far behind physics when it comes to theoretical rigor and validity, but physics today has advanced far beyond where it was when the Wright brothers were working on their flight project. The brothers saw the necessity in seeking out the available theories and data and making the best of their material. Within practical politics and political philosophy, the situation is different. Classical philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke did not have the social sciences at their disposal and relied on their common sense, peppered with fragments of stories from abroad. Social scientists have evolved, but philosophy and praxis remain relatively unaltered, by and large proceeding in their prescientific state. Keynes once noted that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist,” and many a political philosopher takes after them in this respect.
The Anatomy of Inequality by Per Molander
ON SALE: August 30, 2016