Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Don't Clip My Wings

I didn't watch the State of the Union speech last night, but I read the transcript about 30 minutes before the President delivered it.  Innovation was a big theme, and the President intends to offer the support of the government.  He said this:  Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That's what planted the seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.

Notice what he does.  "Free enterprise is great, BUT ..."  I'm pretty sure he can't help himself.  When writing about a gaggle of liberal columnists the other day, Kevin Williamson of National Review Online said this:  they are ideologically beholden to the belief that people cannot thrive without a very robust and paternalistic state to mind them.  According to the President, who is stuck in the same ideological ditch as those columnists, we should not only mind the people, but fund them.

When I read his funding innovation comments my thoughts went to the Wright brothers, a couple of bike shop owners who did not receive their high school diplomas.  Starting in 1899, and armed only with their own, self-taught minds and their modest, bicycle shop incomes, they did their own basic research and arrived at the crucial scientific and mechanical insight, 3-axis control, that allowed for their history-making powered flights on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.

In contrast to the Wright brothers, Samuel Pierpont Langley was one of the most prominent physicists in the United States in the late 1800s, with professional credentials ranging from Chair of Mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy to Secretary of the Smithsonian.  Langley started experimenting with aeronautics in 1887 and in 1896 two of his steam-powered, unmanned airships flew distances approaching one mile over the Potomac river.  On the basis of this success he was awarded two grants in 1898, $50,000. from the War Department and $20,000. from the Smithsonian, to build a powered, manned aircraft.  Despite his credentials, massive head start, and substantial government funding (the first Wright brothers plane cost less than $1000. to build), Langley ended up in a race with the Wrights to be the first to build and fly a powered, piloted, fixed-wing aircraft.  Langley actually tried twice, on October 7th and December 8th, 1903, the last attempt just nine days before the successful flights of the Wright Flyer I on December 17th.  On both occasions, Langley's airplane, which required a catapult for launching, had no landing gear, and two-axis control as opposed to three, plunged immediately into the Potomac.

No buts about it.  Free enterprise is great.