Roger Hicks considers… ‘ Orville and Katharine Wright aboard Wright Model HS’, 1915, unknown photographer
Acommon reaction to old photographs is: ‘Look at those funny old clothes [aeroplanes, cars, hairstyles, whatever].’ Now come at the picture from the other direction: still, ‘Look how far we’ve come since then,’ but with new definitions of ‘then’ and ‘now’. In 2018, 1915 is 103 years ago. With 1915 as ‘now’, 103 years ago is 1812.
We’ve all seen the famous pictures of Wilbur Wright, prone in the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk in 1903; like this one, part of an archive given by the Wrights to the US Library of Congress. This is only a dozen years later, the year that Orville sold the Wright aircraft company after winning a long and vicious patent battle with their deadly rivals Curtiss; with which Wright merged in 1929. Yes, the Model HS is still very primitive: spruce, wire and fabric, with twin pusher propellers chain-driven from a single engine. It is however a two-seater (with actual seats) capable of carrying Orville and Katharine: their brother Wilbur had died of typhoid three years before.
Flying across the Atlantic
Now for a First World War story. My wife’s late mother was born in upstate New York in 1911. One day in 1917 or 1918, an aeroplane flew overhead. She ran to her father in tears: ‘ The Germans might come over and bomb us!’ He gathered her up in his arms and comforted her: ‘Don’t be silly, Marion! They will never be able to fly across the Atlantic!’ In her lifetime, she flew across the Atlantic eight times.
So much for futurology. We can make a few vague guesses about possible future scenarios, but the more distant the time frame, the more vague we must be. We can say some things with absolute mathematical certainty: for example that infinite growth is impossible with finite resources. We cannot, however, guess at all reliably at how things will look in even a decade’s time, let alone 50 or 100 years.
Brave new futures
With this in mind, I have been looking at many of my books on photography with a new eye. They show what was happening when the pictures were taken, or sometimes, remnants from the more- or less-distant past: even as far back as the Pyramids. Now, though, their future is our past. We know about Sopwith Camels and Avro bombers; about jet liners and space flight. How did Orville and Katharine envision the future when this picture was taken? They’d have known more about aviation than Frances’s grandfather; but how much more? Think of all the brave new futures, Socialist, National Socialist, NeoLiberal. How much can we guess about anything, at least remotely accurately; and how far ahead?
‘ The more distant the time frame, the more vague we must be about possible future scenarios’