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Which Came First: Airplanes or Paper Airplanes?

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What came first, the paper airplane or the real thing? It’s a valid question, but the answer is obvious once you look at history. Paper planes were, in fact, a vital precedent in developing manned flight. That elusive power had captivated people until the Wright Brothers achieved the feat in their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but the origins of paper planes—and the ambitious curiosity behind flight—go back generations.

Ancient Paper Planes and the Leonardo Factor

Specifics are hazy, and there's some disagreement surrounding who is actually responsible for first folding up a piece of paper and letting it fly. Technically some 2000 years ago the ancient Chinese were the first to invent the paper plane since they also used papyrus paper to invent the kite, but their primitive designs may not have much in common with the paper planes we make today. (Detractors claim these Chinese designs were more akin to simple origami birds that were thrown without the intention of having them fly.)

Others—who point out that the relative and proportional concepts of air resistance and velocity weren’t fully grasped until centuries later—say Leonardo da Vinci and his documented experiments in bringing his failed ornithopter to life make him the creator of the paper plane. Always fascinated by the concept of flight—he even sketched out crude concepts for a parachute and a helicopter—the artist and inventor’s notebooks specifically reference his attempts at building a model plane out of parchment. (Scientific American even named the magazine’s first paper plane contest prize, The Leonardo, after him.)

Gliding Along

A subsequent pioneer in airplane flight (both paper and real) is Sir George Cayley, the man who identified the four primary aerodynamic forces of weight, lift, drag, and thrust. In 1804—just shy of a century before the Wright Brothers’ flight—Cayley built and flew the first successful human-controlled glider based on his observations that the propulsion of the plane should generate thrust and the shape of the wings should create lift, as opposed to the long-held belief that the propulsion force should generate both forward motion and lift, like da Vinci’s failed ornithopter or the wings of a bird. Cayley documented the tests of his ideas using small model gliders made of linen that he flung from the hillside near his home in Yorkshire, England.   

The Wright Stuff

Wikimedia Commons

Wilbur and Orville Wright would also experiment extensively with paper planes while tinkering with their designs for powered flight. They continued to use wind tunnels and small model planes to test out what they came up with, graduating to larger kite models and, eventually, creating the Wright Flyer, the first successful powered aircraft, which was made from spruce wood and fabric.

This practice of starting small with paper designs to refine aerodynamic ideas for larger aircraft would continue on, most notably in the 1930s when Jack Northrop, the co-founder of the Lockheed Corporation, used paper planes for tests that led to the development of many of the planes and bombers that helped the Allied powers win World War II.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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