The Argonauts of the Air
by H. G. Wells

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Phil May's Annual, December 1895

collected in —
The Plattner Story and Others

The Short Stories of H. G. Wells April 2007

The inevitable terrible cost to learn flying —

"The Argonauts of the Air" is a short science-fiction story showing H. G. Wells in a very pessimistic mood about a scientific and engineering breakthrough — although in fact it was just around the corner. Powered and controlled heavier-than-air flight was only a few years away from 1895; many people were working toward it more or less imperfectly, and the careful work and genius of the Wright Brothers achieved it in 1903.

Why was Wells so pessimistic, so that his protagonists die trying to fly their big and balky prototype aircraft? One reason was that Wells was aware of the challenge in the art of flying; that is, simply throwing a machine into the air is no more flying than is jumping off a roof while waving cloth wings. Another reason was the overwhelming complexity and hence overwhelming expense of any substantial project of flight.

Here is what Wells says:

But the bird is practising this art from the moment it leaves its nest. It has not only the perfect apparatus, but the perfect instinct to use it. A man off his feet has the poorest skill in balancing. Even the simple trick of the bicycle costs him some hours of labour.

The instantaneous adjustments of the wings, the quick response to a passing breeze, the swift recovery of equilibrium, the giddy, eddying movements that require such absolute precision — all that [mankind] must learn, learn with infinite labour and infinite danger, if ever he is to conquer flying.

The flying-machine that will start off some fine day, driven by neat "little levers," with a nice open deck like a liner, and all loaded up with bombshells and guns, is the easy dreaming of a literary man.

In lives and in treasure the cost of the conquest of the empire of the air may even exceed all that has been spent in man's great conquest of the sea. Certainly it will be costlier than the greatest war that has ever devastated the world.

That surely does sound depressing, for those hopeful of flight in the late Nineteenth Century! Yet as a specific failure of science-fictional prediction, its wrongness is striking. But the errors of a great futurist like Wells may prove more enlightening than the safely humdrum presumptions that power the workaday world.

Let's look at the components of engineering, skills, and finance.

The basic problem is that Wells begins by assuming that Hiram Maxim's line is the one to follow; "The Argonauts of the Air" specifically states that the protagonists are carrying forward Maxim's work. Hiram Maxim (1840-1916), the inventor of the machine gun, put substantial money and effort into a steam-powered, winged, multi-ton flight Test-Rig that ran on rails and that did succeed in lifting momentarily off the rails in England in July 1894. But this is a boosted jump rather than controlled flight. A steam locomotive derailing and falling off a bridge is about as airworthy.

— but the Wright Brothers designed a machine
that they could fly

The Wright Brothers, in contrast, focused on the nature of a simple but complete flying machine; that is, one that they could fly. In fact, their prototypes could be and were flown unpiloted, handled by the Wrights with wires from the ground like a kite. Thoroughly practical dreamers, they understood how engineering and skills worked together.

It is poignantly ironic that Wells in his story gives the negative, warning example of learning to ride a bicycle — since the Wrights were bicycle mechanics and appreciated the difficulties in defining and then practicing and mastering such a skill-set.

Finally, the enormous cost "in lives and in treasure" of the flight-test project presumed in "The Argonauts of the Air" reminds me more of the giant aerospace projects of the American government after the Second World War, than of the Wright Brothers' straightforward work. (In treasure, at least; lives are a different question.) More costly and deadly to achieve flight than the efforts of the ages to master sea travel? More costly and deadly than the greatest war? (Take your pick of any before the First World War.)

I suspect the Wrights would reply, "Well, sure, if you're doing it the wrong way, you can spend all the money in the world and still not be well aloft."

In "The Argonauts of the Air", H. G. Wells' hard-headed and practical realization of the real difficulties grounded his own soaring imagination, "the easy dreaming of a literary man". Yet a dream of the ages was only eight years from realization, man in flight.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson


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