On April 6th, Smithsonian Associates held a program called “The Rise of the Airplane: From the Wright Brothers to Lindbergh” at the S. Dillon Ripley Center. The guest speaker was aviation expert Paul Glenshaw, a man of many talents. His career covers multiple disciplines, including documentary filmmaking, exhibit design, STEM and STEAM education, photography, and playwrighting (he is the author of the upcoming play To Swing Through the Sky, commissioned by George Mason University). He has long been affiliated with the Smithsonian as he is one of the drawing instructors for the Smithsonian Associates’ Studio Arts program and a contributor to the Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine. In the lecture, Glenshaw explored the rise of the airplane by analyzing how the airplane changed the world, how the world changed it, and how the 1920s launched the boom of airplanes.
Glenshaw's lecture was entertaining as he was able to intertwine his personal passion for flight with the astonishing story behind the emergence of airplanes. The history of aviation is a story of remarkable people, and Glenshaw began his lecture with a quick history of the scientists, artists, and writers, or as Glenshaw calls them, the “Heroes and Weirdos,” whose work with aviation and flight influenced and inspired the Wright Brothers. These “Heroes and Weirdos” include Leonardo Da Vinci, the Montgolfier Brothers, and George Cayley. I really enjoyed this section of the lecture as Glenshaw was able to give a brief summary of each historical person's contribution as well as a unique fact about them.
After this section, Glenshaw talked about the Wright Brothers. Glenshaw emphasized the trials and tribulations they faced as they invented, built, and flew the world's first successful airplane. Glenshaw shared many videos of the Wright Brothers’ flights as well as videos of his own family flying replicas of the aircrafts. It was truly a special moment when Glenshaw showcased his and his family’s love of flying; the audience could truly tell that Glenshaw had successfully passed down his love of flying to his kids.
Glenshaw then transitioned to the entertainment aspect of flight, which was by far the funniest part of the lecture. The entertainers that Glenshaw highlighted had such unique and bizarre stories that it was hard to believe that these people were active during the time of the Wright Brothers. An example of these entertainers was “Captain” Thomas Baldwin, one of the greatest showman among American aerialists. Baldwin gained international fame in 1887 with his first parachute jump. After its success, Baldwin took his parachute act to Europe, South Africa, New Zealand, and Asia. Glenshaw described how Baldwin would earn a dollar for every foot he dropped, which was about 3,000! Glenshaw wrote more about Baldwin in his article from the Air & Space magazine called “Kings of the Air,” which I highly recommend.
After explaining the entertainment aspects of flying and Charles Lindbergh's contributions to flight, Glenshaw concluded his lecture by explaining the evolution of airplanes from entertainment to war. In that section, I could truly feel the sense of urgency as Glenshaw described how different countries tried to create war machines out of airplanes.
In summary, through the laughter and airplane puns, I thoroughly enjoyed Glenshaw's lecture about the remarkable evolution of airplanes. And after visiting the Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center with my newfound appreciation for airplanes, I was able to see the Wright Model A (Reproduction), an early aircraft produced by the Wright Brothers, and truly realize the Wright Brothers contribution to aviation.
-Written by Martina Umunna