It's a hundred years today since Louis Blériot became the first person to fly an aeroplane across the English Channel. (He wasn't the first person, period; Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries together crossed it by balloon in 1785.) As x planes has already post-blogged the flight itself, I'll focus on one reaction to the flight, specifically that of H. G. Wells. He was asked to write about the meaning of the flight by the Daily Mail, which gave the £1000 prize won by Blériot.
Wells discerns a number of meanings, most trivially that he himself had 'under-estimated the possible stability of aeroplanes' in The War in the Air, written two years earlier. More important is the fact that 'This thing from first to last was made abroad'. 1 According to Wells, Britain has contributed virtually nothing to the epic of flight, its youths more interested in batting and bowling than gliding, for instance, in stark contrast to Europe:
Over there, where the prosperous classes have some regard for education and some freedom of imaginative play, where people discuss all sorts of things fearlessly and have a respect for science, this has been achieved.
He hammers this point home:
I do not see how one can go into the history of this development and arrive at any other conclusion. The French and Americans can laugh at our aeroplanes, the Germans are ten years ahead of our poor navigables [i.e. airships]. We are displayed a soft, rather backward people. Either we are a people essentially and incurably inferior or there is something wrong in our training, something benumbing in our atmosphere and circumstances. That is the first and gravest intimation in M. Blériot's feat.
Wells then turns to the implications for warfare, echoing Lord Northcliffe's statement that 'England is no longer an island'. Aeroplanes are, according to Wells, far more dangerous than Zeppelins ('little good for any purpose but scouting and espionage').
Within a year we shall have -- or rather they will have -- aeroplanes capable of starting from Calais, let us say, circling over London, dropping a hundredweight or so of explosive upon the printing machines of the Daily Mail and returning securely to Calais for another similar parcel.
(I think Wells is suggesting that this would be a bad thing.) Hundreds of aeroplanes could be made for the cost of a Dreadnought, he notes, and they will be hard to shoot down. Certainly, a 'large army of under-educated, under-trained, extremely unwilling conscripts' (then a popular cause for Conservatives) wouldn't be much use against aeroplanes. The problem is (again) education:
The foreigner is ahead of us in education, and this is especially true of the middle and upper classes from which invention and enterprise come -- or, in our own case, do not come. He makes a better class of man than we do. His science is better than ours. His training is better than ours. His imagination is livelier. His mind is more active. His requirements in a novel, for example, are not kindly, sedative pap; his uncensored plays deal with reality. His schools are places for vigorous education instead of genteel athleticism, and his home has books in it, and thought and conversation. Our homes and schools are relatively dull and uninspiring; there is no intellectual guide or stir in them; and to that we owe this new generation of nicely behaved, unenterprising sons, who play golf and dominate the tailoring of the world, while Brazilians, Frenchmen, Americans, and Germans fly.
Perhaps. But in less than a decade Britain built probably the world's most successful aviation industry, while waging a world war -- its children can't have been all that unenterprising, then.
After a discursion on the Navy and whether it is 'bright' enough, Wells wonders, 'Are we an awakening people?'
It is the vital riddle of our time. I look out upon the windy Channel and think of all those millions just over there, who seem to get busier and keener every hour. I could imagine the day of reckoning coming like a swarm of birds.
Now, if it had been my article, I probably would have ended on that nicely forboding image. But Wells being Wells, he returns again to lament the failings of the British education system. For example,
Not one in twenty of the boys of the middle and upper classes learns German or gets more than a misleading smattering of physical science. Heaven knows what they do with their brains.
He estimates that the 'reading and thinking public' in Britain is probably less than fifty thousand in number.
Wells concludes from all of this that 'The days of natural democracy are surely at an end through these machines':
I do not think numbers are going to matter so much in the warfare of the future, and that when organised intelligence differs from the majority, the majority will have no adequate power of retort. The common man with a pike, being only sufficiently indignant and abundant, could chase the eighteenth-century gentleman as he chose, but I fail to see what he can do in the way of mischief to an elusive chevalier with wings. But that opens too wide a discussion for me to enter upon now.
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- H. G. Wells, 'Of a cross-channel passage', Daily Mail, 27 July 1909, 6. All quotes from this source.