Tuesday, September 04, 2007

On The Wings of Dreams

A couple of days ago, I saw that Paul MacCready died recently. My guess is that of the people on my blogroll, only Skyler's Dad and Samurai Frog knew who he was.

In 1977, when I was 16, I read, with fascination, that a team headed by Maccready, had won the Kremer Prize for human-powered flight. The prize stipulated that the winner must fly a human-powered vehicle in a figure eight course around two markers that were a half mile apart, and begin and end at least ten feet in the air. Public television had a very cool documentary on the project.

The 50,000 British pound Kremer prize, administered by the Royal Aeronautical Society, had gone uncollected since 1959. The pedal-powered aircraft that won the first prize, the Gossamer Condor, was piloted and pedalled by a young guy named Bryan Allen.

The Royal Aeronautical Society upped the ante for a second Kremer prize: 100,000 British pounds for a trip across the English Channel.

With the help of a then-new type of material, carbon composite fiber, Maccready and Bryan Allen once again teamed up to collect a second Kremer prize on June 12, 1979 with the Gossamer Albatross.

Maybe it was the fact that I'd just finished high school days before, and was soon to start college, but their accomplishment filled me with a sense of the possibilities of life.

In late 1980, when I was living in Salt Lake City for a few months, Maccready came and spoke at the University of Utah, just a couple of blocks from where I lived. My friend Cindy and I walked over there and listened to his talk. It was, of course, fascinating, and we chatted with him for a few minutes afterward. It was very cool meeting someone I admired.

After that I always took note of him when I saw him in the news. He later developed a solar-powered airplane, the Gossamer Penguin, and was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute to create a flying model of a pterodactyl, which he did successfully in 1986. He also worked on a solar-powered car, and on unmanned surveillance aircraft.

I remember talking to a college classmate, when I was a freshman in college in 1979 or 1980, about Maccready's airplanes. At the time, they had little practical use-- we just thought they were the coolest thing. There is talk now of using his solar-powered flying wings to provide high-speed internet access over large areas. But I'm not sure that this is the most important thing Maccready did.

There is a place for pure beauty in the world. I look at the things that bring that beauty into my life: a Joan Miro painting; Joni Mitchell's Heijira album; Jacob Lawrence's paintings, Louis Sullivan's buildings; Frida Kahlo works; the Beatles' Abbey Road album. Maccready's creations had grace, beauty, elegance, and of course, ingenuity. But the thing I loved was that he brought the dream of Icarus, to "break the bonds of earth," to fruition. To fly, literally, on Gossamer wings, must have been lovely. Thanks for that, Paul Maccready.


Beth said...

I knew who Maccready was, but I didn't know he passed away last week.

I love your list of things that bring beauty to your life. So many of those are on my list. One of my greatest joys is seeing Jacob Lawrence's "Migration" series — at both The Phillips Collection and MoMA.

deadspot said...

Was I the only person who was disappointed when I realized that didn't say "Paul McCartney"?

Skylers Dad said...

I had not heard that he passed away! A great loss to us all, he was a visionary. The Gossamer Albatross was indeed a beautiful bird, wouldn't it be a treat to attempt to fly in that?

Grant Miller said...

This is the first I've heard of this. I'll look him up.

Johnny Yen said...

I saw the Migration series when they had it at the Chicago Historical Society in 1994, right around the time Adam was born. I brought him to the exhibit, but I don't think he remembers it...

Remember the "Paul is dead" rumors in the late sixties? Wouldn't it be ironic if he's the last one alive?

Skyler's Dad-
I've thought the same thing! The dreams of Icarus...

He was a pretty interesting guy. In his talk, he mentioned having young sons and how the US seemed ready to fight a war in the Mideast over oil-- remember that this was during the Iranian hostage crisis. How prescient he was. He said he hoped that somehow his work would lead to a need for less petroleum use.

deadspot said...

A while ago I caught a show where they were doing a retrospective of the best John Belushi sketches from SNL. There was one where he was dressed up as an old man and he was visiting the graves of all of his costars.

It was just a little bit heartbreaking.