Innovative Lives

Into the Wild Blue Yonder and Beyond: Paul MacCready

by Chris Broda-Bahm

Innovative Lives: Paul MacCready

MacCready assembles his ornithopter Paul MacCready has no idea what will happen, or so he says.

Near the end of his Innovative Lives presentation, MacCready pulls a cardboard box from beneath the lectern and begins assembling his ornithopter. It is fragile and MacCready has to concentrate to fit the pieces together. It has a number of parts and MacCready accidently drops one on the floor. Once constructed, it is about six inches long, consisting of balsa wood and plastic for its wings. MacCready gets assistance from a student in tightening the rubber band that will allow it to fly. He then tells us he has no idea what will happen and sets it free. There is absolute silence as a wide-eyed audience sits transfixed while the ornithopter glides and flutters across the room.

MacCready’s presentation and ornithopter remind us of the beauty and mythology surrounding flight--from da Vinci’s fantastical drawings to early would-be pioneers of flight strapping wings on themselves, the idea of human powered flight has occupied the thoughts of generations of inventors and dreamers. But it wasn’t until 1977 when MacCready realized the dream with his Gossamer Condor, a crude machine powered by a human pedaling a bicycle. Far from the elegance and grace displayed by the ornithopter, the Condor looks like a flying irrigation unit wrapped in cellophane. And far from the effortless propulsion of the floating ornithopter, the Condor had a bicyclist enclosed in a plastic pod hanging from the contraption furiously pedaling to keep the machine aloft--only ten feet from the ground and moving at a speed of 10 miles per hour, but still flying.

The ornithopter fliesThe success of the flight of the Gossamer Condor earned the inventor the historical appellation of “the father of human-powered flight” and allowed him to claim the first of his four prestigious Kremer Prizes, this one for controlled, sustained human-powered flight; a prize that had gone unclaimed for over eighteen years.

The then 77 year-old inventor envisions a world where we “do more with less” and are able to sustain an ever increasing and resource consuming populace. MacCready shared his invention processes, thoughts on the future, and fielded questions from Ormond Stone Middle School in Centreville, Va. and Queen Anne School in Upper Marlboro, Md. in an afternoon session, and from a public audience in an evening event sponsored by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation on November 8, 2002.

A tall, thoughtful, soft spoken man with a decidedly practical approach to invention, MacCready is arguably one of the greatest inventors of our time and one with a clear, environmentally-focused agenda. From the hiking shoes he sports with his suit to his economy of words, he seems to embody his philosophy: form follows function and it is possible to do more with less.

According to MacCready, education is at the core of sustainability. Understanding the state of our resources and our impact on the environment is essential for change, MacCready tells his audiences. “We don’t have much of a chance for an earth that ‘works’ if we continue growing and consuming more energy all of the time.” To stress this point, MacCready presents his audiences with graphs containing staggering information. On the chart, the line for humans, livestock and pets keeps going up while the one for wild nature dips dramatically down. “The 20th century was,” according to MacCready, “marked by humans’ exploitation of nature. And you can’t exploit nature too long because there isn’t much left…I want people to think about this. I want people to know that the next century will not get by on fossil fuel.”

MacCready explains the principles of flightMacCready urges students to see where the needs are greatest and begin their work from there. “You’re inheriting the future,” he reminds them, “and we can get by using a lot less energy than we’re using now and having just as good lifestyles.” And, MacCready stresses, “it is best to invent things that work with less energy.”

While many of MacCready’s projects are indeed responses to his environmental conscience, his first project, the Gossamer Condor was more of a response to his financial needs. Having co-signed a business loan that went belly up for a friend, the then 52 year-old MacCready was more than eager to win the $95,000 Kremer Prize for a successful human powered flight. In fact, it was that event that drove him to begin building airplanes in the first place.

Sharing footage from his work on the Gossamer Condor, MacCready provided a fascinating account of the atmosphere in which his early flying machines were created. In one clip, MacCready can be seen chasing the Condor on a bicycle, shouting instructions to his bicycle pilot. In others, we see the crashes and resulting despair of the MacCready team which included his sons and wife. But, most remarkably we see a man struggling to solve problems. And solve them in incredible and incredulous ways--by adding part of a manila file folder, for example, to extend a wing, or using tape to hold pieces together. Part of the beauty of watching these early clips is discovering the simplicity of some of MacCready’s solutions and his willingness to re-envision and refine ideas as well as reap them from just about anywhere.

Drawing inspiration from nature is a clear trope for MacCready. Whether it be from watching birds or from an obscure magazine with a cover featuring flying eels, MacCready has always had a penchant for investigating the natural world. “I always kept up with an interest in bird, bat, and bug flight,” he said.

MacCready believes that his bird flight studies gave him a definite edge and allowed him to take a different approach to the Condor than others seeking the Kremer prize. “Had I been in a traditional aeronautics firm," he asserted, "I would not have gotten the idea.” MacCready, with a wry look in his eyes, states that his approach to the Condor was simple, “you’d think that any theoretician would get it the first day they worked on it but nobody did,” and for a moment, you believe him.

MacCready flies the Air SurferMacCready shared a video clip from what he describes as an epiphany in solving the problem of controlling the turning of the Condor. In the video, a shaggy, tanned boy dangles off a diving board. Lying on his stomach he guides a replica of the Condor in a circular pattern through the end of the swimming pool. “It wasn’t until that moment when we could actually see the apparent effects of mass [on the Condor] that we were able to solve the problem of stability and control,” recounted MacCready.

Two years on the heels of the success of the Gossamer Condor, MacCready followed up with his Gossamer Albatross, a human powered machine that flew over the English Channel in a grueling three hour flight, piloted by professional bicyclist Bryan Allen, who ran out of drinking water two hours into the flight and struggled with severe leg cramps during the crossing. The triumph of the Albatross took Henry Kremer, the creator of the prizes, by surprise. According to MacCready, Kremer thought it would take a person another eighteen years or so to master this second challenge as the Channel is twenty times the distance of the mile long course required of the Condor.

But MacCready and his team didn’t need the time. “We realized that if we cleaned up the Condor twenty percent or so, it would be enough to get across the Channel. We used carbon fiber tubes over aluminum, made them skinnier and more elegantly fashioned, but kept the weight the same.” Of the Gossamer Albatross flight MacCready recounts, “It was incredible, for everyone. There were one hundred reasons why it shouldn’t have worked.” Subsequently, another of MacCready’s inventions, the Bionic Bat, another human powered airplane, won two new Kremer speed prizes in 1984.

Committed to the idea of preserving and conserving resources and creating energy efficient ground transportation, MacCready’s company, Aerovironment, founded in 1971 and located in Monrovia, Calif., focuses on alternative energy sources and has developed a number of environmentally pioneering vehicles. Whether in the air or on the ground, MacCready’s projects are all linked by a desire to change the way we view and subsequently use our resources.

In 1987 MacCready’s disillusionment with the manner in which cars are marketed and a public resistant to moving away from oil and gas powered vehicles led MacCready’s team and General Motors to build the GM Sunraycer which won the solar car race across Australia at a pace 50 percent faster than the second place vehicle. The team also developed a battery-powered car that became the catalyst for developments around the world. It was marketed by GM as the EV-1.

Whether through efficient air vehicles, devices designed to use renewable and distributed energy, or with his electric and hybrid vehicle systems, MacCready and Aerovironment continue to “do more with less” and strive to make environmentally sound technology available and appealing.

The beauty of MacCready’s fragile, opalescent, and transfixing ornithopter is that it is essentially perfect. It is built to serve its function and because it does it so well it possesses nothing extraneous. Cars, MacCready explains, are ugly because they include so many unnecessary elements. It is the beauty of MacCready’s perfect, compact, economical and environmentally friendly designs that make him mesmerizing.


Want to learn Paul MacCready's formula for success? Read his talk, "Unleashing Creativity."


All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 9 March 2005.

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