Burnelli - Smithsonian Correspondence

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December 21, 1994

 

Mr. Chalmers H. Goodlin
Chairman & President
The Burnelli Company, Inc.
7372 N. W. 12th Street
Miami, Florida 33126

Dear Mr. Goodlin:

Mr. Shrontz asked me to review your recent letter of November 22, 1994 regarding the ill-treatment of Vincent Justus Burnelli in recent Smithsonian Institution publications. In reading the contents of your letter and reviewing the voluminous attachments to it, I can only be awed by the enthusiasm and dedication with which you have championed the cause of Mr. Burnelli and his ideas for so many years.

Any historian is continually faced with the problem of deciding what to include or exclude from a given work. While we may not agree with the choices a particular individual has made, the prerogative of choosing and the responsibility for those choices rests with the author. Any good editor will, to the degree possible, honor both the word and the intent of what the author has written, once an item has been accepted for publication. While both author and editor share the responsibility of avoiding publication of factual errors or statements with malicious intent, only the author is responsible for any omissions, perceived or real. In reviewing the attachments to your letter, I believe you have been dealt with fairly so far by the editor of AIR & SPACE magazine. Mr. Boyne may be able to clarify for you his reasoning in leaving reference to Mr. Burnelli's airplanes out of his book.

It is a peculiarity of the engineering enterprise that often the hardware, in this case the airplanes themselves, rather than the people who design and build them, tend to be revered by the public at large. We generally hold the art in greater esteem than the artist in technology. Airplanes gain fame in more-or-less direct proportion to their military or commercial success. Unfortunately, for what ever suite of reasons, Mr. Burnelli's designs were never produced in sufficient number to directly influence either war or commerce, and like many other potentially worthy candidates, have been relegated to the status of footnotes to aviation history.

Mr. Chalmers H. Goodlin
Page 2

 

On a more philosophical level, the degree to which Mr. Burnelli's concepts may have inspired or influenced other designers (consciously or unconsciously) is likely unknowable. The great majority of the engineers I know take exceptional pride in their work, and most show due respect for the intellectual property of their peers. Insofar as Mr. Burnelli's designs and concepts were based on good basic physics and economics, it is likely that much of what has been claimed as direct influence on others is in fact more akin to the process in nature of "convergent evolution" (i.e., two or more clever individuals working from the same base of theoretical understanding and experience on the same kind of problem arrive at similar solutions). In nature, we thus see a dolphin resemble in all exterior particulars a fish, when in fact it is a mammal. Similarly, the history of aviation is filled with well documented examples of this process (e.g. the multiple, independent inventions of the swept wing and the turbojet engine). Since the true degree of Mr. Burnelli's influence on other designers cannot be known, any further contribution by me to a controversy which has existed for more than half a century is valueless to either you or me.

Greatly privileged as we are to live in a country that cherishes the right of every individual to hold and freely express his or her opinions, I think you must agree that for Boeing or Mr. Shrontz to attempt to interfere in any way with the editors of the Smithsonian Institution Press or the author of the Smithsonian Book of Flight would be far more unconscionable than any possible slight done to the memory of Vincent Burnelli or his ideas by omitting them from the book. Instead, I would suggest that, given the wide range of publication opportunities both here and abroad, you might devote some effort to telling the Burnelli story as you see it. History and the public may then be the better judge than you or I regarding the significance of Vincent Burnelli's contributions to aeronautical technology.

Sincerely,

[signature]

R. A. Davis

 

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