Paul MacCready

On this date in 1925, Paul MacCready was born in New Haven, Conn. He was interested in flight from a young age, often building prize-winning model airplanes. MacCready earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale in 1947, his master’s degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1948 and his Ph.D. in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology in 1952. During college, MacCready constructed gliders and won the U.S. National Soaring Championships in 1948, 1949 and 1953, as well as becoming the first American to be named World Soaring Champion in 1956. MacCready, known as the “father of human-powered flight,” developed the Gossamer Condor in 1977, an aircraft powered solely by the muscles of its pilot. His later human-powered Gossamer Albatross accomplished the feat of flying across the English Channel in 1979. His many other aircraft include the solar-powered Gossamer Penguin, built in 1980, and the human-powered Pathfinder Plus, which in 1998 flew to over 80,000 feet. He founded AeroVironment, Inc., in 1971, a company which develops energy-efficient vehicles and services. His numerous awards include the Guggenheim Medal in 1987, NASA’s Public Service Grand Achievement Award and the Reed Aeronautical Award in 1979.

MacCready was an active humanist who identified himself as having nontheistic beliefs (according to “CSICOP and the Skeptics” by George Hansen, published in The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, January 1992). “[Humans are] a magnificent random experiment with no goal,” MacCready said. He believed that religion formerly served the purpose of providing “authority, ritual, belonging, tradition [and] mystery,” but that it had become obsolete in modern times. MacCready opposed creationism, and built a replica of a pterodactyl that was able to fly for the National Air and Space Museum in 1984 partially as an attempt to change the views of creationists. He was a Humanist Laureate of the Academy of Humanism, was a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, was a member of the International Academy of Humanists, and has spoken at the Santa Barbara Humanist Society. (All quotations cited in More With Less: Paul MacCready and the Dream of Efficient Flight by Paul Ciotti, 2003). D. 2007.

“Over billions of years, on a unique sphere, chance has painted a thin covering of life—complex, improbable, wonderful and fragile. Suddenly we humans (a recently arrived species no longer subject to the checks and balances inherent in nature), have grown in population, technology, and intelligence to a position of terrible power: we now wield the paintbrush.” 

—Paul MacCready, Jr., “The Case for Battery Electric Vehicles” (published in The Hydrogen Energy Transition edited by Daniel Sperling and James Cannon, 2004).

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

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