It happened today - December 17, 2015

Today is of course the 112th anniversary of the first successful manned flight on Dec. 17, 1903, by… oh please. We all know it was the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, NC. And we never looked back.

We all know, of course, that their first airplane was a ludicrously unsafe box kite of death that never, ever would have passed the precautionary principle. The actual flight took place at Kill Devils Hills but kill pilot hills might have seemed a better name. Except this time it didn’t.

Instead, three days after Wilbur suffered a minor crash on takeoff on Dec. 14, Orville soared to a majestic 10 feet above the ground and covered 120 feet in 12 seconds, nearly 7 mph. Wilbur and Orville then made flights of 175 and 200 feet. Amazing, huh?

Well, it is, considering the technology of the day. But here’s what amazes me even more. Within 15 years the Red Baron had made a name for himself in agile fighters armed with synchronized machine guns and died. Within four decades the Battle of Britain had been won by Spitfires capable of flying over 500 mph and going eight miles up into the sky. Indeed, 42 years after Kitty Hawk, while Orville Wright was still alive (Wilbur died of typhoid aggravated by exhaustion in 1912), an airplane dropped an atomic bomb on a city.

The moral here, it seems to me, is that technology is galloping away with us. Sure, it’s cool, and yes, I fly a lot and find it very convenient. But one invention after another appears, changes our lives, becomes indispensable, and creates a host of new problems.

People are now all gaga about drones and self-teaching robots as though these could not possibly be transformed far more rapidly than the airplane into technologies we cannot manage. As for the Internet, 20 years ago we were using Trumpet Winsock and dialup modems and now we have state hackers poised to shut down our power grid.

Ah, progress.

Charles Lindbergh, a U.S. Air Mail pilot and U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve officer, became instantly hugely famous when he made the first nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927, less than a quarter century after the first halting 120-foot flight. Although he misused his fame to be foolishly isolationist if not worse in the run-up to World War II, and suffered the personal tragedy of the kidnapping and murder of his son, he also built on it to fashion an extremely exciting and successful career as an author, explorer, inventor, and, crucially, environmentalist.

A product of the technological age, he remarked wistfully later in life that “I realized that If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes. In wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia. Real freedom lies in wildness, not in civilization.”

In our mad pursuit of new technological toys and terrors, we are in danger of forgetting that insight. And at the pace with which technology goes from laughable prototype to transformative, indispensable and uncontrollable, we won’t have much time to remember it if we are not very careful.

It happened todayJohn Robson