why was the sceptics on heavier than air flight?

Apparantly years ago people did not believe in heavier than air flight when the world is full of heavier than air birds - flying around us! Were people that stupid or have I mistook this somehow?

Let’s put it this way. People did not believe in powered human-carrying heavier-than-air flight for the good reason that it was technologically impossible until a lightweight gasoline engine of sufficient power was developed. That was not until the beginning of the 20th century, which is exactly when flight began. Even at that time, however, most people - even experts - did not understand the physics of powered flight nor did they believe that the technology had advanced as far as it had.

Why should people be called stupid for saying that something which was technologically impossible was in fact technologically impossible?

Certain beliefs like the earth bieng flat is understandable because they had no way of observing it at the time but
the existence of birds flying around in the air is a pretty good clue that it is possible isn`t it? for people to just dismiss heavier than air flight at the time is very odd, no?

You seem to be missing the point. No one dismissed heavier than air flight. They all believed that birds flew. What was greeted with scepticism was heavier than air human flight. And that was a justified scepticism because the feat was impossible with the technology of the day. The existence of birds flying around in the air was not seen as a pretty good clue that it was possible because they accepted that birds had different physical characteristics to humans, notably their weight to strength characteristics.

Many people today believe that light speed human travel is impossible. The existence of photons flying around in the air is not seen as a pretty good clue that it is possible because they accept that photons have different physical characteristics to humans.

But they weren’t dismissing heavier-than-air flight; They were dismissing powered human flight, which is a different thing entirely.

question answered. thanks

A belief that powered human-carrying flight is impossible is indeed a lot like a belief that the earth is flat- no one educated has believed it in recorded history.

Heck, the ancient greeks not only knew the Earth was spherical, they measured its radius quite accurately.

Even after the first flights, many people still doubted that these flimsy powered kites could ever serve any practical purpose. And even by the 1920s, many doubted that the aerialists’ dreams of “air-liners” carrying hundreds of people across oceans and continents would ever happen.
Arthur C. Clarke once wrote a book titled “Profiles of the Future”, the first chapters of which addressed the history of ‘It can’t be done’.

Big names in science declared that flying machines were impossible, and the informed members of the public followed suit:

“The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in a practicable machine by which men shall fly for long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be.” - astronomer Simon Newcomb, 1906

I do recall once seeing an article which debunked Newcomb, showing that small efficient steam engines of the late 1800s could have done the job after all.

Perhaps the real issue was that hundreds of crackpots were working on mechanical flying machines, so the scientific community had to distance themselves?

Another issue: the crude airfoil calculations of those decades assumed that only the lower half of the wing could deflect air. Therefore the calculations would predict an engine which was much heavier than was needed by a real aircraft. The Wrights ignored theory and instead built a wind tunnel, so they discovered things that the top physicists of the time were still clueless about.

Heh. Rockets were in the same situation, and if Hitler hadn’t dropped “Jules Vern Space Ships” on London, they might still be “impossible” today:

“This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd
lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists.”
-A.W. Bickerton, physicist, NZ, 1926

“The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]…presents
difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss
the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author’s
insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed
impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually
-Sir Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E.
Cleator’s “Rockets in Space”, Nature, March 14, 1936

“Space travel is bunk” -Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of
Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik

The belief that flying machines were impossible was certainly “in the air” at the turn of the century. When the Wrights were flying their machines in Dayton, the Scientific American magazine was calling them “the lying brothers,” and refused to send any reporters to observe the flights. No newspaper anywhere sent any reporters. Even the local Dayton city paper refused. (And when the newspaper received large numbers of eyewitness reports and letters to the editor asking why they were not covering the amazing events taking place, they ignored them too.)

Why did the Wrights take their flyer to Europe? Because the US government, the military, and the press all refused to believe that they had a successful machine, and refused to send anyone out to see the tests. The Wrights should have buzzed the White House. Instead they did the equivalent, but in France, putting on public demos at a horse track in Paris. They made headlines in all the national newspapers in Europe, dined with royalty, etc. In the USA there was not a peep about this.

Why did the Wright’s flyer hang in a European museum for decades? Because the head of the Smithsonian Institute insisted all the way to his grave that the Wrights were lying hoaxers and had not flown in 1903 as they claimed.

Skeptics know that “belief” is dangerous, since once a belief is adopted, evidence won’t sway it. Skeptics should fear “disbelief” just as much, and for the same reason.

Actually, the Wright Brothers were notoriously shy about publicity. They actually chose their test site because there were few native witnesses, and it was (at the time) infrequently visited. One good reason was that while they build the first “practical” powered aircraft, it was not stable. The Paris Aero Club was actually selling parts kits for Dumont’s first working flyer before the Wright brothers felt ready for public demonstrations, and in most of the world, the Wright Brothers are considered a footnote to Dumont. As native sons, they are much more honored here.

A lot of their European connections were through collaboration with a European enthusiast (whose name eludes me - something like Ottavo Chennault) who was living in Chicago and also corresponded with the Aero Club in Paris (where Dumont built the first stable airplane - rigid-winged with a dihedral, unlike the Wright’s flex-wing design which was like riding a bike and required constant operator action to remain in the air. The Aero Club was quite respectful of the Wright’s progress, but their goal was quite different.

Among the reasons that the Wrights were treated as crackpots by the US Military is that they were quite secretive about heir plane, and wouldn’t provide the information requested. Their unstable plane was also incapable of carrying any cargo or even a single passenger. When the military made that a requirement, they tried to comply, resulting in the first aviation fatality: Lt. Tom Selfridge.

The story is long and complex (made more complex by different versions told at the time for various reasons) and skepticism was indeed rampant, but I don’t agree with the way you’ve presented it. I would like to provide specific supporting links to pages at The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museum of Pioneer Aviation but I’m afraid I can only point you to their main page. The major articles have been restructured and rewritten in the two months since I read it through (just before the centennial) and it is, if anything, less well organized and more fragmented now.

While they were often snubbed by the press, a great deal of the oppobruim was due to a disagreement they had with Samuel P. Langley (then head of the Smithsonian Institution) who was trying to fly a manned and powered modification of his unmanned 1896 aerdrome glider in 1902-1903. There were numerous court cases (partly fueled by men like Curtis who had a vested interest in discrediting their claims and were not above a bit of chicanery to do it) Much of the “the establishment” was polarized, and the feud with the Smithsonian went on (over other issues) for decades

Perhaps the most telling point is this: the skepticism that you report was directed mostly at the Wrights, NOT the existence of powered flight. American media was not nearly so dismissive of Dumont, Curtis, etc. in the early years, and the Wrights and their early claimed achievements continued to be controversial well into the 1930s, well after Orville had served on the original NACA board, and Charles Lindburg had flown from New York to Paris amid great public acclaim.

In fact, very little of modern aviation derives from the Wright Brother’s flex wing (which we are only now revisiting with new technology) However, Dumont’s independent design, flown the following year, is completely familiar - rigid wings with a dihedral, rear tail control surfaces (instead of a canard), puller-prop, and many other features that suggest it was the progenitor of the next few decades of aviation, even if it was not the first in the air

The Wright’s design remains so unworkable that AFAIK only one of the dozens of amateur and professional efforts to built a practical flying model of their design in the past half-century ever flew twice without crashing (and most never flew once) - and that design used modern techniques and materials like carbon fibers. Dumont flyers were built and flown by enthusiasts around the world then, and authentic [original material] working versions were easily built and flown by individuals/groups for the upcoming Dumont Centennial

I understand the point you were making. I simply feel you should find a more accurate and suitable example.

This is one of those cases where it’s instructive to read what peoples’ arguments actually were. For instance, the oft-cited quote from Newcomb that bbeaty mentions comes from this 1906 chapter by him, though the sustance of that is a lazyish rehash of an earlier 1903 article. Newcomb was utterly wrong, but he wasn’t stupid and he devotes much space to discussing why he thinks human flight is a far harder problem than bird flight. Note that he explictly doesn’t think that it’s impossible - just not achievable with the technology of the day.

The press reaction to what the Wrights were doing was, to echo KP, somewhat more complex than outright disbelief. If anything, their problem was exactly the opposite - so prepared were the press to the idea of flying machines that the reaction was both exaggerated and bored. This archival listing has a collection of headlines reporting on the 1903 flights, all positive. Some of this coverage was so positive that it was almost entirely fabricated, prompting the Wrights to issue a statement condemning it. The extreme example of how much was being taken for granted by the press is the famous anecdote of the Dayton editor dismissing the story on the grounds that 57 seconds (sic) in the air wasn’t news, but 57 minutes would be. (The story is sufficiently cute that one has to be, well, sceptical, but it is refered to and accepted as true in one of Orville’s letters decades later, so it’d still be relevant as evidence of perceived reactions.)
The real difficulty in assessing the reaction is the argument from silence. Why did the papers that didn’t carry a story not do so? Disbelief? Or did they just not hear? There are a few cases where it can be established that the AP told a paper, but they ignored the story. Even in these cases one cannot eliminate the possibility that they just took it as another unexceptional aviation story that didn’t merit publication.

Where the difficulties start is in 1904. For the flights in Dayton the brothers did specifically invite the press, but they didn’t succeed when the journalists were present. After this they do, understandably, seem to have had difficulty interesting journalists. Unfortunately, this was just the period where they start clearly making major strides.

Cite? The notorious Scientific American article in January 1905 is certainly unambiguously sceptical about whether the Wrights had achieved what was being claimed on their behalf. But it never actually explicitly accuses them of lying. Nor for that matter does it remotely doubt that powered flight is possible. Which should be unsurprising, since the magazine routinely carried articles on the subject in the period (including a favourable one about the Wrights’ earlier work). What the article calls for is evidence for what is being claimed.
When more testimony was forthcoming, their April 1906 followup article was actually cautiously accepting.

This is a rather strange twist on things. The Wrights “felt ready” for public demonstrations by 1905 (by which time they had made fliights of over 10 minutes, with 360-degree turns), but didn’t wish to commit to a large-scale public demonstration until they had a signed contract. Cites supporting the notion that anyone seriously views Dumont as primary and the Wrights as a “footnote” would likely be rare. Convincing evidence to support this view would be much rarer. For counter evidence, you need only examine at the French reaction to Wilbur’s 1908 flights at Le Mans.

You’re thinking of Octave Chanute, a prominent American engineer of French extraction. But he wasn’t really a collaborator - just a supportive correspondent.

They never failed to provide requested information (though rather little was requested). The US Army had become wary of crackpots, and for some time failed to take note of what the Wrights had in fact accomplished.

They had no disagreement with Langley. The disagreement was with the Smithsonian which, after Langley’s death, tried to claim that the Aerodrome was the first aircraft “capable of manned flight” and enlisted Curtiss in support of this claim, which much later was admitted to be bogus.

This is not accurate at all. Prior to the Wrights, manned flight was regarded with quite general skepticism. Skeptics were thoroughly confounded by their public demos on both sides of the Atlantic in 1908.

“Flex wing” is a strange term here. By 1904, the only part of the wing that flexed was the outboard trailing edge - as on modern aircraft. The patent disputes were resolved with the finding that there was no fundamental difference between the Wrights’ wing warping and Curtiss’s ailerons. A great deal of modern aviation derives from this.