Is it actually right?
August 6, 2008 2:34 PM   Subscribe

I recently read something that has made me start to wonder about the credit given for inventions in the past. I was unaware that in France, Brazil, and other places the Wright brothers are not listed as the first in flight. I am wondering what other things I may be missing out on due to my American midwest public school teachings.

I started this question after reading this response from a different question

Brazilians are taught that Alberto Santos Dumont was first in flight, rather than the Wright Brothers. The debate rages, to this day. Every society has its own version of history- before you can get outside of the comfortable bubble in which you were educated, you have to understand that there is a bubble, and that you're in it.
posted by ambrosia at 6:52 PM on October 3, 2006 [+] [!]
posted by hexxed to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Please allow me to suggest the books of Howard 'People's History of the United States' Zinn and Kenneth 'Don't Know Much About History' Davis.
posted by box at 2:45 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Presumably this book has its own agenda, but you may be interested in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. I liked it, but I don't know how accurate it is, either.
posted by zeek321 at 2:46 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

might i suggest starting with lies my teacher told me: everything your american history textbook got wrong by james loewen.

"Textbooks keep students in the dark about the nature of history...[They] employ such a godlike tone, it never occurs to most students to question them...As a result of this, most high school seniors are hamstrung in their efforts to analyze controversial issues in our society."-loewen

personally, my mind started to be blown when it came to the cannibalism of the first thanksgiving.
posted by nadawi at 2:47 PM on August 6, 2008

Yes, those are excellent examples of historical revisionism.
posted by Class Goat at 2:47 PM on August 6, 2008

(Referring to Davis and Zinn.)
posted by Class Goat at 2:47 PM on August 6, 2008

Apparently Edison bought the patent rights for the lightbulb from a Canadian. And Bell was "Canadian". And much of Marconi's best work was done in Canada. Etc, etc. Americans are no worse than anybody in the sense that every country has a very nationalistic myth built around their history of invention.
posted by GuyZero at 3:00 PM on August 6, 2008

I think it's more complicated than just "you were lied to":
  1. You are more willing to accept fuzzy citations for your compatriot. Once it gets enshrined in the nation's lore, the fuzziness of it gets forgotten. Textbooks don't involve themselves with citations and such.
  2. You are more willing to accept a generous definition of what was invented by your compatriot. Sure Edison didn't invent the light bulb, but he invented the first practical commercial one, and that's really what mattered, right? Or your definition of powered flight may be different.
  3. Ties for invention inevitably go to your compatriot. Mix in some secrecy and very slow travel speeds, and the time period for a "tie" could stretch to years. Plus before photos, how could you prove anything was really real?
  4. Every country needs heroes

posted by smackfu at 3:00 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's because they weren't "first in flight". What they did was create the "Flyer", which was the "first heavier-than-air, manned, powered, winged machine to fly successfully under full control, using aerodynamic principles developed by the Wright brothers and applied since then on all practical airplanes". Some Frenchmen in Paris flew around in a hot air balloon in the late 1700s, and that's generally considered to be the first "human flight". According to Wikipedia, anyway.

Not sure if this pertains to your question, though.
posted by Dreamcast at 3:00 PM on August 6, 2008

Response by poster: I guess it is not a practical question for various reasons. I will have to do what everybody eventually does, go the library and do some of my own research and decide for myself. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.
posted by hexxed at 3:07 PM on August 6, 2008

Another good book on those lines is History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History. Examples: the history of Texas from the Mexican perspective; the War of 1812 from the British and Canadian perspectives, and the origins of the Cold War from the Russian perspective.
posted by jedicus at 3:08 PM on August 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

Also, in general the study of the study of history is Historiography. The issue of biases in recorded history is widespread beyond the history of US technological innovation.
posted by GuyZero at 3:17 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're Scottish, Baird invented television and fibre optics. Bell was Scottish too. It's hard not to get too McGlashan (SYTL) about this though ...
posted by scruss at 3:19 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's not _exactly_ a lie. Let me explain.

I have a book on Helicopter design. In its introduction, there is a long time-line which describes the development of helicopters: from first conception of a helicopter, to first attempt at a helicopter, to first steam powered helicopter, to first internal combustion engine powered helicopter to first tethered flight, to first practical helicopter, to first mass produced helicopter, etc., etc.

The notable thing is that many of these happened in different countries. Depending on your country-centric bias, it would be easy to claim "Well, (my country) was the first to fly a tethered helicopter, so we invented the helicopter!" Essentially, by picking a definition of 'helicopter', you're claimed the 'honor' for your country.
posted by Comrade_robot at 3:53 PM on August 6, 2008

Read up on Nikola Tesla. You will be shocked.
posted by bh at 3:57 PM on August 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Chuck Yeager? No 2 to break the sound barrier, after Geoffrey de Havilland. Oh and Lindbergh was the sixteenth to fly across the Atlantic.
posted by TheRaven at 3:58 PM on August 6, 2008

Leon Czolgosz? The influential anarchists of the day thought he was a poseur, at best, and quite a few of them thought he was a fed.
posted by box at 4:12 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Of course Lindbergh is famous for doing it solo, so that's not much of a revelation.
posted by smackfu at 4:12 PM on August 6, 2008

Richard Pearse of New Zealand beat the Wright brothers by months.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:16 PM on August 6, 2008

Consider the Indian mathematician and astronomer Aryabhatta (AD 476-550), who believed that the Earth, moon and other planets shown by reflected sunlight, arrived at the correct explanation for eclipses and estimated the circumference of the Earth to within 0.2 % error.
posted by peacheater at 4:55 PM on August 6, 2008

Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth in 240BC and any up-to-date history curriculum shoul dmention that. As much as there is some dubious history taught out there, does anyone get taught that Columbus was the first person to believe in a round earth anymore?
posted by GuyZero at 5:11 PM on August 6, 2008

Yeah, what Dreamcast said about the Wright bros. They didn't invent flying. They went one better -- they invented the airplane as we know it, which is incredible considering that today's planes use essentially the same core principles and layout. Even the profile of modern propellors remains mostly unchanged from what they worked out in their wind tunnels 100 years ago. By making flight both practical and useful, the Wrights by extension created the entire aviation industry in one stroke.

Nobody works in a vacuum, of course, but the Wrights came close, and I can't think of anything else as sophisticated as the Flyer that pulled together so many different concepts and synthesized them so beautifully and so wholly formed into such an important machine.

Dudes were way ahead of their time and fully deserve recognition as aviation's greatest pioneers. I'd say the same thing if they were French or Mongolian or whatever.

All of which is to say, I'm sure lots of "American" inventions and firsts are debatable, but the Wright boys were monsters whose raw skillz can't be overstated. Despite Wikipedia's qualifications of what they created, every other aviation achievement is trivial compared to theirs.
posted by Camofrog at 6:11 PM on August 6, 2008

Apparently this is some sort of HBO show but it is a great short lecture on historical "facts" that are completely wrong.

Robert Wuhl - Assume the Position
posted by Octoparrot at 6:51 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Who you think invented television will probably depend on where you were taught or where you draw the line. As pointed out above, the Scottish have a claim, as do the Germans, Russians, and Americans.
posted by drezdn at 7:29 PM on August 6, 2008

The same phenomenon is/was true of the American-Russian ‘Space Race’. They won. But like a kid on the play ground we kept changing the goal. They put the first object in orbit, the first human in space, the first space walk, the first deep space probes and the first space station. Then we got to the moon, planted the flag and went “Horary America wins the space race!!”
Blew my F-ing mind when I learned that.
posted by French Fry at 8:44 AM on August 7, 2008

The ironic thing is that often people "see the truth" about their own country, but then blindly believe "the truth" as told in some other country.
posted by smackfu at 9:00 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

There is some degree of controversy as to whether Bell invented the telephone or stole the idea off somebody else less good a filing patents.

Quite a number of inventions have their true origins obscured by the secrecy of war for many years. For example in the UK we had Colossus running a few years before the better known ENIAC and James Ellis developing public key cryptography several years before it was mentioned by Diffie and Hellman at Stanford.
posted by rongorongo at 7:40 AM on August 13, 2008

I've been told that the first plane to have flown was designed by Clément Ader, some years before Wright.
posted by nicolin at 5:44 AM on August 19, 2008

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