Others flop and end up forgotten or, perhaps even more ignominiously, sequestered in the “Archives of Useless Research,” a collection of books and pamphlets stored in the gold mine of knowledge that is the MIT Archives.
As its name implies, the Archives of Useless Research is, in and of itself, a curiosity. Assembled by Albert Ingalls, the associate editor of Scientific American from 1923-1955, and given to the MIT Libraries in 1940, they consist of materials that rejected contemporary theories of physical sciences or explored hypotheses not yet accepted. The Archives has since been added to, and now contains writings and publications from 1900-1965.
Sorting through the six boxes that make up the collection, one finds books, manuscripts, and papers from the early twentieth century with titillating titles such as “Heat is the Ether of the Universe,” “The Coming Age: Presaged by an Era of a Profounder Research,” and perhaps most intriguing of all, “Why Life Exists and Allied Subjects.” While a small handful of the theories contained in the boxes have borne out—some in important ways, such as early warnings that smoking could cause cancer—most turned out to be, well, largely useless.
Although called a “nut collection” by some, the Useless Archives could more aptly be described as a series of intriguing snapshots into the history of invention and inquiry. One such tidbit, a five-by-three-inch, drab-gray booklet, provides a glimpse into the story of a man—Richard A. Engler, his vision and his failed dream.
Titled Aircraft, Present and Future; or Truth About Mechanical Flight and published by Engler in 1926, this inconspicuous book draws the reader in with Engler’s promise that his conclusions about flight and its advancement “may surprise, even if it does not please you, and may even interest you, because of additions which are not generally known.”
He explains: “There are four types of aircraft possible, namely the Dirigible, Airplane, Helicopter, and Ornithopter.” The first three, he contends, are inherently limited by “grave inherent faults.” By contrast, the ornithopter “has none of these inherent faults nor any inherent defects of its own, which is obvious, because it follows Nature’s own method of flight.”
Engler therefore announces that the ornithopter, built in accordance with Nature’s design, ”solves the problem of flight completely, which no other type does or can do.” Based upon this conclusion, which was made a little more than twenty years after the Wright Brothers first successfully flew a manned airplane, our main mode of air travel in the twenty-first century should be the ornithopter.
But wait a sec…what is an ornithopter?
An ornithopter is an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings: hence, its name, taken from the Greek works ornithos for “bird” and pteron for “wing.” It turns out the ornithopter has a long history of research and innovation dating back at least to Leonardo da Vinci, who sketched a design for the flight machine, but never actually built one.
In his fourteen-page booklet, Engler proceeds to develop the case for the ornithopter through explaining the many shortcomings of dirigibles (i.e., Zeppelins and blimp-like flight machines), airplanes, and helicopters. “No aircraft with body and wings rigidly connected together, and which requires long runs on the ground at starting and landing; and which skims over the air like a flat stone over the water only to plunge, like a stone, when its speed decreases beyond a fixed minimum [i.e., the airplane]…can ever succeed in practice,” he boldly pronounces. He had absolutely convinced himself (despite the many airplanes by then flying around). “The Creator Himself,” he practically shouts at us, “could not change these defects (without upsetting the whole universal mechanism). Why does man try to?”
More provocative and telling, however, is his conclusion: “The empire of the air has not yet been conquered, never can be with the present means available, and never will be till the Ornithopter arrives….Now I invite your attention to my U.S. patents No. 1,394,814 and No. 1,394,816.”
The answer at last arrives. Reading through his booklet and patents, which are stored at the U.S. Patent Office, it quickly becomes clear that Engler was on a mission. The inventor from Evanston, Illinois, was certain that his ornithopter would revolutionize mechanized flight. He filled the pages of his patents with beautifully and carefully drawn depictions of his flight machine’s components, explaining his unique, nature-inspired ornithopter design. He wrote paragraph upon paragraph of praise for the ornithopter and meticulously—and repeatedly—explained its benefits over airplanes or other modes of air travel.
As is probably true for most unrecognized inventors trying to make their creations known, Engler’s publicity efforts were flavored with a pinch of desperation. “History abounds with great inventions turned down till the right type of mind came along, and this mind usually belonged to a man that was unknown to newspapers…Do not let my newspaper obscurity foolishly blind you to my efforts,” he writes in his booklet, a plea for acknowledgement.
Sadly for Engler, close to a century later we’re apparently still waiting for that “right type of mind” to come along and manifest a bird-like machine that can solve the problem of flight. In the meantime, Engler remains largely unknown and his idea, like many others in the MIT Archives of Useless Research, has yet to be fully realized.
However, his dream lives on. In 2010, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto made news by flying 475 feet in a modern ornithopter. And, Engler would surely be proud to know that recent ornithopter inventions—of the toy sort, at least—have actually cited his patent.