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The First Book I Ever Owned...

The first international paper airplane contest took place in the winter of 1966 and 1967. The whole endeavor was an effort to bring publicity to Scientific American magazine, which probably found itself battling for attention. The US was in the middle of a cold war with the Soviets, a hot war with Viet Nam, and a civil rights movement.

It must’ve felt like the wheels had come off the vehicle of America. Fidel Castro had declared Martial Law in Cuba, and Walt Disney had just died during the making of Jungle Book. Out of this chaos came a book, documenting that first contest. It was published in 1967. It was to become the first book I remember owning—just me, not the usual communal property status of a Dr. Seuss or encyclopedia.

The First International Paper Airplane Book is at once studious and irreverent, bringing in historical anecdotes and contemporary scientists; portraying paper airplanes as integral to the history of aviation, while acknowledging the limits of their research utility. It’s charming and wonderful. My thinking about paper airplane design and the science of flight was, and is still, influenced by this book’s tone and content.

An oddity of the book is that although it theoretically documents a contest, the page revealing the winners is not listed in the index. A close look at a reprinted publicity piece on page 22 reveals the results: 10.2 seconds for duration and 91 feet, 6 inches for distance (although it’s noted the plane hit the rear wall of the Hall of Science). Both of these marks are far less than half the current world record marks. But it was a start. 22 years later, I wrote my first book of paper airplane designs. Because of the 1967 book, I felt I was joining a very special club.


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