Franz’s Failure: the man who fell out of the sky – (a Brexit parable.)

One of the darker aspects of humanity’s otherwise gallant and dogged aspiration to fly was just how many early innovators met sticky ends. The first recorded aviation fatality is that of the great Islamic scholar Ismail ibn Hammad Al-jawhari who demonstrated the certainties of gravity and the frailty of man by fitting crude wings to his arms and jumping off a mosque in 1008 A.D. He died. Over the centuries that followed dozens of brave and sometimes foolhardy people met similar ends until, in 1903 the Wright Brothers managed to actually get up in the air and really get the ‘death by flight’ ball rolling. The fate of many early aviators is grimly repetitive. American Sam Cody, the first person to fly in Britain – died in a plane crash. Charles Royce (of Rolls Royce fame) died in a plane crash. John Alcock – the first man to fly across the Atlantic – died in a plane crash. Oskar Bider – the first man to fly across the Alps – died in a plane crash. Artur de Sacadura Cabral – the first man to fly across the South Atlantic – died in a plane crash. Raymonde de Laroche the first woman to get a pilot’s licence – died in a plane crash.

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Charles Rolls – in the plane he flew across the Channel

Exceptionally brave people and without them the development of heavier than air flight would have been grounded but it quickly became apparent that what was really needed was for someone to invent the parachute. Actually, parachutes already existed and had done so since the late 18th century but design limitations meant that they were only effective at high altitude. As most early aircraft could not get much above 500 feet the race was on to find a design that would deploy effectively at lower elevation and save lives – before the world ran out of pilots. And so, in November 1911, a mysterious benefactor by the name of Monsieur Lalance wrote to the Aero Club of France – offering a prize of 10,000 francs (about £45,000 today) to anyone who could invent a safety parachute weighing no more than 25kg that could practically be used by pilots of aircraft.

Enter stage left a tailor called M. Reichelt. ‘Franz’ Reichelt was an Austrian émigré who, having obtained French nationality in 1909, had changed his name to Francois, grown a magnificent Gallic moustache and in between making garments for wealthy customers, become fascinated with the possibilities of powered flight. The deaths of early aeronauts had inspired him to conduct his own experiments with parachute design and he had had some early success throwing dummies out of fifth storey windows – but he had been hampered somewhat by a lack of proper investment and a really good test site.

Francois was a man imbued with a surfeit of self-belief and confidence and he became fixated on the idea of winning the prize. He would become known as the man who invented ‘foldable silk wings.’ After all, it played to his strengths. He was a master of cloth. He liked planes – despite never having been in one. He knew all about stitching and texture and style. He didn’t know much about air resistance, or terminal velocity or even gravity – but these were trivial matters and the young tailor set to work on perfecting his design.

While Reichelt had every belief in his abilities, those experts who came into contact with him were less persuaded. The leading aeronautic organisation of the time, La Ligue Aérienne quickly dismissed his invention on the grounds that it wouldn’t work. The canopy was ‘too weak’ and the society endeavoured to convince him to try and do something more useful with his time – but Reichelt was having none of it. As the winter of 1911 progressed – he carried out multiple experiments, gaily chucking mannequins wearing his invention from the roof of his premises and then watching them plummet onto the cobbles below.

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The magnificent Francois in his silk wings

Most inventors might anticipate a ‘fail rate’ in the testing of new technology of course – but his was an impressive 100%. His ‘flying suit’ floated with all the grace of a freight train, tied to lead balloon. But it didn’t matter, because Francois Reichelt ‘believed’ in it and anyway he had set himself a deadline. In February 1912, just three months after Lalance had offered the prize – Reichelt declared that he was ready. Having gained the necessary permission, on the morning of Sunday 4th of February the flamboyant tailor arrived, wearing his suit and brimming with confidence in the Champs de Mars – at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

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Monsieur Reichelt – prepares for his demonstration

It was a bitterly cold day and film footage shows vapour exhaling in ever larger quantities off Reichelt’s breath. The tailor had promised the authorities and his friends that he would use a dummy for the test, but he had failed to mention that the dummy would be him. As his real intentions became clear, his increasingly desperate companions prevailed upon him and the police to put a stop to the madness but it fell on deaf ears. Reichelt believed it would work. Against all the evidence of experts and his own multiple tests – which demonstrated clearly that in every instance he would fail – the tailor believed his invention would lead him to glide gently to the ground. After a brief impasse, Francois ascended to the first floor of the Eiffel Tower. There he posed for the cameras, before unfurling his Heath Robinsonesque wings. He climbed onto a table and then onto a chair that sat on the table – paused for a moment on the edge of the barrier – and jumped.

The hole Francois left in the ground has long since been filled in – but in a sense he did achieve the fame and celebrity he so clearly craved. Poor Franz Reichelt is remembered now as a magnificent failure, the first person whose death was caught on film. Watching the footage while knowing the outcome is almost unbearably poignant.

But what can we learn today from this act of suicidal futility?

Reichelt’s demise differs significantly from that of the pilots of his era in that their experiments and daring do were based on an evidence based approach to flight. His was based on the very opposite principle – from the very beginning it was clear his invention would not work. He was told as much by experts. He saw it for his own eyes. There was nothing at any point in the development of his flying suit to suggest that it would deploy properly. And yet – he prevailed – ultimately at the cost of his own life. Was he naïve? Was he foolhardy? Was he stupid? Yes – he was all of those things and more – and perhaps it’s time there was a word for it so I propose in his honour that we call it – a reichelt.

Reichelt (n): A person or entity hell bent on doing something suicidally stupid when all of the evidence demonstrates clearly that it will end catastrophically.

Example: “You moronic reichelt….. why the hell are you juggling cobras naked? Don’t you know what will happen?”

Adjective: reicheltic – “The British government took a reicheltic approach to the Brexit negotiations, eager as they were not to lose face in front of 17.4 million people who had voted for it to happen.”

Reicheltism is all about us today. As the world tumbles into further chaos and disarray and we are all forced to eat spam and cuddle together for warmth in nuclear bunkers, we might at least comfort ourselves that there is now a word to describe it.

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French police inspect M. Reichelt’s parachute

Hopkins, Trump and the Resistable Rise of Stupidism.

I know nothing about football. I know what a football is and I did watch a game once, honest, but try and engage me on who scored what in the last Milk Cup and I will stare at you blankly.

The idea that all opinions are equally valid is palpable nonsense. My knowledge of the beautiful game could fill the inner circle of a pin-head. Should it therefore have as much merit as Gary Lineker’s? Of course not. When it comes to football, chemistry, micro-biology and the economy of Tuvalu I am very happy to admit that I’m ignorant.

Nowadays – that makes me an expert.

Over the last decade, the stock in stupidity and uninformed opinions has risen exponentially. Writing in his classic 1992 treatise The Flanshaw Infants* on the potential of the World Wide Web, futurologist Dr. Terence Dobson wrote: “with too much information at their disposal, people (might) choose to take facts as given rather than question sources or open minds to the endless possibilities of knowledge and truth that the internet will provide.”

Seven years later in 1999 social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger carried out a study into the phenomenon of “illusory superiority” wherein people of low ability imagine themselves to be very good at something. The results were astounding. They concluded that:

“In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

The study was inspired in part by the case of a criminal who went around robbing banks with lemon juice on his face – because someone told him it made you invisible to surveillance cameras. Laugh if you like – and then type “flat earth” into Youtube.

1999 saw a huge growth in global internet usage and the theory was timely. Look around – the Dunning-Kruger effect is in evidence everywhere.

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“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (As You Like It)

Tune into any talk radio shows any day of the week and you will have presenters inviting ordinary members of the public to opine on complex issues like global warming, or the crisis in Catalonia, or the best way to solve Brexit, or the ethics of genetic engineering. Sometimes of course a real expert might phone in – or someone may give a powerful testimony born out of personal experience – but a great deal of talk radio could be summarised as:  ‘people who know very little reinforcing other people’s prejudices with unreasoned arguments, based on hearsay in an unchallenged environment.’

On social media things are a whole lot worse. Twitter and Facebook have both made stars out of stupid. Donald Trump might be the first reality star President, but he is also the first Twitter Political Superstar. That is where his supporters meet; it is where they concur it is where they look for validation of their idiotic viewpoints from other absurd twitter celebrities like Alex Jones.

If the 1930s was the age of Communism and Fascism we are now living in the era of ‘Stupidism’. As with those movements it has its Karl Marx figures, its evangelists and its exponents. The Uncle Jo Stalin of Stupid sits in the White House firing off ignorance in 140 character decrees while his Pravda-esque Breitbart and Fox News Network spread the creed. Truth was the first victim of the internet age – and every week facts and accuracy are carted off to the labour camps to join it.

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Twitter – a rich hunting ground for collectors of stupid

Stupidism in its most populist form is a simple credo to understand. It has its slogans, its terms for enemies of the state of stupid, its own imagery and iconography.

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Why bother with the reasons behind immigration into the United States when you can say “let’s build a wall and make Mexico pay!” Why trouble yourself with understanding the EU and Britain’s intricate relationship when you can brand the whole thing the “EUSSR” call all those who support it “snowflakes” and add a crying emoji.

Stupidism is liberating. Stupid is easy. You don’t even have to read a book. In fact it is the first doctrine in history in which never having read a book is a requirement. Years of pent up rage bent double under that chip on your shoulder because you failed history GCSE can be washed away with the aid of 700k twitter followers reinforcing your witlessness.

Sure you were wrong – but if enough groupies say you are right then frankly who cares.

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Even a stopped clock is right twice a day

Inveterate tweeter Paul Watson may be the Trotsky of Stupid but in Britain at least – Katie Hopkins is its Lenin.

Katie Hopkins is tongue-tied. Katie Hopkins is uninformed. Katie Hopkins is not gifted with a sense of humour or an ability to write. She claims to be a patriot but works tirelessly to undermine the country. Is that what she thinks she is doing? Probably not. I suspect Ms Hopkins imagines herself to be of very high ability indeed.

And yet – here I am writing about her. Katie Hopkins has prospered and continues to do so. She, along with Stupidism’s fellow travellers, has indeed got rich on the back of it. Stupidism is profitable because it reinforces and articulates the base ill-informed opinions of a very large segment of society. There is an eager market for it.

What can be done?

I was talking to a bloke in the pub about this on Saturday and we both agreed that critical thinking should be taught as a compulsory core subject in schools. Neither of us are experts in the field and we both broadly agreed with each other so our opinion matters.

Until the children come and save us from this nightmare, it’s up to us all to fight it. Call out the stupid when you see it. Fight stupid and we will defeat it. There is a prevailing attitude that people like Hopkins or the ridiculous Paul Watson should “be ignored and starved of oxygen” or worse that we should listen to everybody – no matter how ill-informed they are. Do that and Stupidism will prosper.

*If you want to read more about The Flanshaw Infants (and trust me you do) by  Dr. Terence Dobson – it’s here