Science Book a Day Interviews Lawrence Goldstone

lawrence-goldstone

Special thanks to Lawrence Goldstone for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies

I’ve written fourteen books of both fiction and non-fiction, six of which were co-authored with Nancy, who saved my life countless times and in countless ways. I’ve had articles, reviews, and opinion pieces that have appeared in, among other publications, the Boston GlobeLos Angeles TimesChicago TribuneMiami HeraldHartford Courant, and Berkshire Eagle. I’ve also written for a number of magazines that have gone bust, although I deny any cause and effect. – Adapted from Lawrence’s Homepage

Lawrence’s Homepage: http://www.lawrencegoldstone.com

#1 – What was the impetus for Birdmen?

Like so many of the best ideas, I stumbled on the topic quite by accident.  I was co-authoring a biography of a 1930s New York Yankees Hall of Fame baseball pitcher named Lefty Gomez, whose nickname was “Goofy.”  Lefty was known for his love of airplanes and, in 1937, once stopped pitching in World Series game to watch an airplane fly by.  I discovered that Lefty had acquired his love of flying in 1915, as a six year-old, at the San Francisco World’s Fair, watching a famous aviator named Lincoln Beachey.  I’d never heard of Beachey, but when I researched him, I discovered he was likely the greatest flyer who ever lived, a man whose list of amazing feats of bravery and control in the air simply defied the imagination.  I then discovered other exhibition flyers with amazing achievements and that led me to the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss.  I was utterly surprised to find that with all that has been written about the Wrights, there were large segments of the story, which I thought vital, that had been overlooked or ignored.

#2 – The Wright Brothers are synonymous with being the inventors of flight. Why hasn’t the story of the brothers and Curtiss been told before?

I think it’s because we tend to focus invention on an individual and ignore the process of innovation that gets us to the products we have come to recognize.  In printing, for example, everyone knows Gutenberg, but few people have heard of Aldus Manutius, who invented the octavo—the size of today’s hardcover—and is more responsible for the structure of books as we now know them than Gutenberg.  Similarly, Wilbur Wright invented the means of controlled flight and modern propeller, but Curtiss had far more influence on what we now understand as the modern airplane.  To Curtiss we owe, among many other inventions, wheeled landing gear, the steering wheel, and ailerons.  He was first man to design an airplane that could take off from a ship or land on one.  He invented the seaplane.  The list of his innovations would take more than a page single-spaced.  In addition, before taking to the air, he had designed a motorcycle that he drove to a land speed record of 136 miles per hour in 1907.  Altogether a fascinating man who had been subsumed by history.

#3 – Your book seems to be filled with amazing characters of the age. Who was your favourite character?

An extremely difficult question.  Times of great change are always rife with beguiling, larger than life personalities, and aviation seemed to have more than its share.  Among the scientists, I was drawn to Otto Lilienthal, who took thousands of measurements of airfoil configurations and then tested them by strapping on makeshift wings and running down hills to glide; “Cap’t” Tom Baldwin, the consummate promoter who invented the flexible parachute and the dirigible balloon; and then, of course, Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss, the first who gave us controlled flight, and the second who perfected it.

But I was even more captivated by the exhibition flyers, especially Beachey, and Harriet Quimby, a stunning beauty who had been an actress, a screenwriter for D. W. Griffith, and a journalist, before cajoling flying lessons from her boss and ultimately becoming the first woman to fly across the English Channel.  There were so many amazing people that I could have done another book on the flyers I had to leave out.

#4 – How long did it take to do your research for this book? How did you go about it?

The book took about eighteen months and I was helped immeasurably by material that is now available online.  The Wright brothers papers, including thousands of letters, have been digitized and are accessible for viewing at the Library of Congress website. (www.loc.gov.)  But of equal value were the aeronautical journals of the period—Aeronautics and Aircraft for example—that were available on the Internet archive (www.archive.org).  These are not just the texts of articles, but the actual pages, including the ads—which were remarkably illuminating—and hundreds of photographs that have never been reproduced.  It is absolutely stunning how much material an historian can now access without ever leaving home…although I did go out occasionally.

#5 – Do you have any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I’m now writing a similar study of early automobiles—called Horseless—focusing on Henry Ford, the antithesis of Wilbur Wright.  Ford never invented anything, not the modern automobile, not the assembly line, not even mass marketing of cars, yet is often credited with all three.  But where Wilbur Wright was a terrible businessman, Ford was brilliant.  And the congruence of Ford and Steve Jobs is eerie.  I should be done in a few months and the book will be out in 2016.

[Image Credit: http://www.lawrencegoldstone.com/images/lawrencegoldstone.jpg ]

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