Tumult in the Clouds

Les Avions de la Grande Galerie

Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace
Aéroport du Bourget, 80 pp., E7.65

Once in a faraway land bounded on all sides by a treacherous river, the King became unusually restless. He was sure that the pastures and the savannas on the other side of the river were more fertile than his. But no one knew how to cross those turbulent waters. The King decreed a great reward of cattle and sheep to be reserved for whoever devised a way to cross the river.

The King’s chief sorcerer in all his regalia, accompanied by his apprentices, announced that he had discovered a magic spell that would force the river god Kol to carry him across the river. The sorcerer climbed to the summit of the sacred rock that rose beside the river. All day and all night his apprentices chanted and danced and brandished torches. At last the sorcerer screamed and leaped from the rock. His long robes floated behind him. Kol seemed to be wafting him toward the other shore. But the sorcerer fell like a stone and hit the surface of the river with a mighty splash. He disappeared. But some said later they saw him climb out on the far side.

The next day two young brothers, bow-and-arrow makers, arrived from a distant region. O King, said the two brothers, we shall cross the river. Leave us alone tonight on the bank so that no one will steal our magic. In the morning, the King saw the two brothers walking peacefully on the far side. A stout rope reached from one side to the other, strong enough for a man to climb along it. The two brothers came back by the rope and claimed the prize and became great heroes.

Soon emissaries arrived from another region. They said the brothers were very clever but those two did not invent the rope bridge. Others had been working on such a scheme long before the brothers came along. But the brothers wouldn’t go away and they wouldn’t show their rope magic to anyone else. Had they really made the rope?

The people were dissatisfied. Who had crossed the river first? Was it workers in another region of the land who knew about ropes? Or the sorcerer whose magic was very strong? Or the bow-and-arrow-making brothers who were so clever and who made claims about their own magic?

The King stayed many hours with his counselors. Then, at a great ceremonial feast he announced his decision. In the morning he had seen only the two brothers on the opposite shore, not the sorcerer and not the rope workers. Therefore the reward belonged rightfully to the brothers. Even if they had not invented the rope bridge, they had used it first. And so the matter was settled, and the brothers earned a place in history. The others were forgotten.

This artless parable comes uncannily close to recapitulating the early history of manned flight. The King embodies the nineteenth-century imperative for mechanical invention. The sorcerer reenacts the story of Samuel P. Langley, the director…

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