Where makers tell their tales and offer praise, brickbats, and swell ideas.
It was great to see the ornithopter project in
MAKE 08! For anyone who missed it, an ornithopter
is a device that flies like a bird, by flapping wings. I
hope MAKE readers find the same fascination and
enjoyment I’ve had from designing and building my
own flying bird models over the past 20 years.
Gurstelle’s build instructions were great as usual,
but the intro focused on the negative. Instead of
giving a sense of all the fantastic accomplishments
in this field, it was the same rhetoric we’ve heard
so many times before: people can’t fly by flapping
wings, but you can build a small rubber-band-powered one. The “short history” tells little about
what’s actually been done. As a result, makers
didn’t get to hear about all the cool stuff people
around the world have been building.
Often the ornithopter concept is judged a failure
or impossibility because supposedly no manned
ornithopter has flown. This is flawed for two reasons.
First, why should the concept be judged at the
manned scale? If we build a device the size of a bird
that flies like a bird, then we succeed in imitating
bird flight. MAKE readers are smart enough to see
where technology is headed. In the future, there will
be a lot of unmanned vehicles doing useful work.
Moving people around will be far less important
than it seems now.
Also, there have been some manned flights.
They were dismissed in MAKE out of pure skepticism. The idea that we can’t fly is such a deeply
internalized myth that people can’t accept news of
a successful flight after it happens. Of course you
can’t fly like Daedalus by gluing feathers on your
arms, but with the right technology and a powerful-enough engine, we can fly by flapping.
Ultimately we can make anything that exists in
nature. Even Leonardo understood this, 500 years
ago and well before the means were in sight.
Bill Gurstelle replies: Mr. Chronister’s points are
well taken. I, too, look forward to the eventuality of
the manned ornithopter.
Thank you for publishing your magazine! Like
many engineers, I got started in engineering by
tinkering with ham radio (á là Dilbert), storing static
182 Make: Volume 09
electricity in styrofoam cup capacitors, blowing up
power supplies — taking things apart to see how
they worked. In short, I got started by engaging in
the kind of play you show in each issue of MAKE.
When engineering became a job, somehow the
fun got lost. I believe that too much of engineering
is treated as an assembly line function — compartmentalized, categorized, commoditized. It’s as if
creativity can be planned and released in exact,
controlled amounts at the exact, appropriate times.
Thanks for bringing back the “messy” human part
of engineering. Your magazine should be required
reading in every engineering school in the country.
Editor’s Note: Many readers (and the entire
magazine staff) were touched by Colin Berry’s memoir
(MAKE, Volume 07, page 36) about his older brother’s
soap box derby successes and failures in the 1970s.
We also persuaded Colin to record the piece in a quite
memorable audio file; you can listen to it at makezine.
com/blog/archive/2006/10/ the_maker_file_ 2.ht ml.
After listening to the piece, one reader had his own
nostalgic tale to add to the soapbox saga.
I just listened to your touching podcast story about
your brother and his soap box derby experience.
What a compelling story. It took me back to my
innocence and youth as I raced in the 1976 soap box
derby in Valparaiso, Indiana.
As I listened, I could not believe the race similari-ties. I too crashed at the end of the race; the brake
malfunctioned (pushed too hard and lifted the
weight off the wheels), threw my car left, and my
rear axle hit the guardrail, and there would be no
more racing for me that 4th of July as the axle was
bent beyond repair.
My family was there cheering me on amongst the
crowd of about 4,000 spectators, and I felt embarrassed and somewhat of a failure at the time to have
my dream taken away so quickly and in such a highly
public way. But the good news was that everyone
remembered me and wanted to look at the damage
to the car, and I got interviewed on the radio.
I remember feeling crushed as I thought of all of
the hours that I lovingly labored on my passion. The
dream was over in a flash, and the only celebration