Technology and Consciousness in the Brumidi Corridor of the United States Capitol

By John Dyer

The Wright Brothers: The Common Man Makes His Break

Created by an unknown artist sometime during the thirties, the Wright brothers' plane represents the first modern iteration of technology in the corridor. The picture of the airplane aloft against a black background is a crystallization of the inventive spirit of Robert Fulton. The image presents The Flyer more as an idea than an object in reality. Also, similar to Fulton's lunette, the plane flown at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903 is one of the pieces of technology in the corridor we easily recognize on first sight, making it as much a work of singular genius as the property of a larger community.

The Wright brothers accomplishment of creating the first powered aircraft is a story of the triumph of the common man. The two brothers were bicycle repairmen before they began work on the airplane, and their discovery was hailed as an indication of the 'know-how' inherent in the American character. While this is a fair assessment of their work, the brothers were also part of a tradition.

Like Fulton, the Wright brothers had a history on which to base their research. Countless European inventors worked before the Wrights, for instance. But of course, the Wrights are a rallying point for American democracy. Their flight brings the nation together and represents the capstone to a project Western scientists had been laboring over for centuries.

Bear in mind the scenario of their test flight, however, and the recurring themes of isolation, dependence and corporativism throughout the corridor begin to seep into this mural, as well. Wilbur was left on the ground, and Orville was alone in the the Flyer, locked in it and out of his element, at least as long as he flew. And this separation alerts us to another aspect of this lunette: despite its divisiveness, the machine needs more than one inventor for its creation. In this manner is Orville somewhat alienated from, yet tied to, a plane that is only half his creation.

Charles Lindbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis is a better example of the modern group-think necessary for such complex devices. His flight demonstrates isolation and the corporate nature of invention on a vastly expanded scale.

Inside The Spirit of St. Louis

Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis continues the vein begun by the Wright brothers. Hailed also as a victory for the common man, the first solo crossing of the Atlantic by air in 1927 magnifies the complications found in the last fresco.

Also by an unknown artist in the thirties, Spirit appears in the same style as the Flyer. Analysis of the historical background is similar, as well.

Lindbergh was part of a grand tradition of flight in the early 20th century. Even more so than the Wright's, however, but in part because of their heraldic accomplishments, Lindbergh's flight was celebrated as a success for the entire Western world. First and foremost, Lindbergh set a record. Furthermore, The preparation that went into the flight was on a mass scale. The pilot was in many respects a cog amongst countless technicians, engineers and manufacturers. Therefore, similar to Orville Wright's predicament, Lindbergh was to some extent estranged from his machine during his 33 hour long flight.

In these two images, there has been a change in 'nature,' one that was presaged but never realized so explicitly by the first three lunettes. In their cockpits, whether for twelve seconds or for more than a day, Orville Wright and Lindbergh had effectively insulated themselves in a new kind of nature totally fabricated by man. In this sense they are cut off from nature. At the same time, they have not made and do not always completely understand the machines through which they do this. This represents a second kind of isolation, one that paradoxically necessitates greater cooperation among larger groups of people.

The transition from the individual to the collective imagination is well underway in the images. The next three sets of lunettes will show how the transition has proceeded in our contemporary period.