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Orange Schlieren photograph of two supersonic jets flying upward

History of flight

Socrates had the right idea. Way back in ancient Greece, he insisted that: "Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives." Intrepid inventors would spend the next 2000 years making that insistent dream a bold reality. How about the Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci, for example, who sketched a design for a wooden "ornithopter" around 1485, over 400 years before the first powered flight? Or Otto Lillienthal, fragile wings strapped to his body and flapping furiously, quite convinced he could fly like a bird—until a fateful date with gravity ended his experiments, and his life, in 1896.

Photo: Supersonic—faster than sound—flight is the norm for military jets in the 21st century, but it took thousands of years of innovation to get to that stage. Photo by JT Heineck, with Schlieren data processed by Neal Smith, courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center.

Scientists weren't always convinced that human flight was a possibility. William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), one of the most eminent physicists of the 19th century, confidently asserted that "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible," while another eminent scientist, Sir George Cayley, thought the opposite: "I am well convinced that Aerial Navigation will form a most prominent feature in the progress of civilization." Two science-minded brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, eventually settled the dispite, proving that Kelvin was absolutely wrong, when they made the first, stuttering, engine-powered flight in 1903. Today, we can see that Socrates was a visionary and we're taking him absolutely at his word with rockets and probes that venture well beyond Earth's atmosphere into deep space. But in between dreams of the air and the reality of flying, where exactly did this great adventure—the story of human flight—properly begin? Let's take a closer look!

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  1. Dreaming of the sky
  2. Floating free
  3. Finding our wings
  4. Powered flight
  5. The coming of the jet
  6. Flying by spinning
  7. To infinity... and beyond!
  8. Find out more

Dreaming of the sky

Humans first soared to the sky in bold adventures of the imagination. The wondrous eastern tales of the Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), for example, feature a magic carpet, while another ancient Persian epic, the tale of Kay Kāvus, includes a flying throne carried by specially trained eagles. Something like 5000 years ago, an ancient Sumerian shepherd-king named Etana is reputed to have hitched a ride to heaven on the back of an eagle. Several thousand years later, while Socrates was busy imploring people to take to the skies, fellow ancient Greeks were all too aware of the perils, real or metaphorical, of over-reaching themselves: the famous Greek legend tells how Icarus fell to Earth after flying too close to the Sun with hasty wings made of feathers and wax. The Greeks also had a flying horse called Pegasus, while the Romans, following in their ancient footsteps, had Mercury, their own winged messenger from the heavens.

Statue of Mercury the winged messenger at Saltram Park, Devon, England.

Photo: A statue of the winged messenger Mercury at Saltram House in Devon. Look closely and you'll see the wings under his hat!

Stories like these, which we're still recycling to this day, must have played an inspiring part in the first real attempts to take to the sky along, of course, with practical observations of birds, insects, and other flying creatures. No-one knows who made the very first human flight—or when—but one strong candidate is Abbas Ibn Firnas (810–897CE), an Andalusian version of Leonardo da Vinci, who jumped from a tower in Cordoba (now Spain) around 850 with flapping wings strapped to his body and reputedly flew quite some distance. Over in Malmesbury, England about a century later, a young monk named Eilmer attempted a similar flight, proudly commemorated in a piece of stained glass in the town's abbey. Using a pair of crude homemade wings, he reputedly glided a distance of about 200m (650ft) from the Abbey tower before crash landing and breaking both legs, rendering him lame for the rest of his life.

Sculpture of a boy on a flying carpet in Boothbay Harbor, Maine by Carol M. Highsmith

Photo: A boy sets off on a flying carpet in adventures of the imagination. Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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Floating free

There's more than one way to fly—and the first real flights might be better described as "floats," since they involved buoyant (floating) balloons rather than winged aircraft. The science of floating, as we understand it today, was clearly understood by Greek mathematician Archimedes (287–212BCE) around 2200 years ago. Famously, he figured out how objects displace (push aside) their own weight of fluid, which is the first step toward understanding why ships can float on the sea. Though Archimedes floated these thoughts c.200BCE, the first balloonists are thought to have taken to the air long before then. Some believe that the Nazca people of southern Peru built balloons hundreds of years earlier, perhaps c.500BCE, from which they planned the famous, vast, incredible artworks in their dusty desert landscape (popularly known as Nazca Lines) that are still visible from the air to this day (though this explanation is controversial and disputed).

A red Virgin hot air balloon clears tall trees.

Photo: Hot-air balloons fly by floating.

It takes a flight of insight to understand that the same science floating boats on the sea allows balloons to rise and float in the air. The person who figured this out was English polymath Roger Bacon (c.1214–1294); taking Archimedes' ideas a step further, he understood that air pressure could support a balloon in the same way that water pressure supports a ship. All very well in theory, but how could you achieve it in practice? Modern balloons have hot air inside them that's less dense (lighter) than the air around them, so they feel a force called lift that makes them rise into the sky. The basic science—hot air is less dense than cool air—was first properly worked out by a brilliant 17th-century chemist named Robert Boyle (1627–1691), but people had an intuitive grasp of the idea long before then. Over 2000 years ago, Chinese children are believed to have played with toy flying "machines" made from eggshells with burning twigs inside them. As the twigs burn, they heat up the air inside, making the shell into a miniature hot-air "balloon" that (supposedly, if it's not too heavy) rises into the sky. Sweet wrappers (Amaretto papers) that fly into the air when they burn look like mini hot-air balloons but work on different principle (the burning paper creates an invisible draft of rising hot air that eventually sucks the paper up with it).

Though the theory and practice of using hot air to make lift seems to have been known for thousands of years, it wasn't until 1783 that the first proper hot air balloon was created, by French brothers J. Étienne and Joseph M. Montgolfier (1745–1799 and 1740–1810). With an "envelope" (gas-containing bag) fashioned out of cloth and paper, blown high by a straw and wood fire burning beneath, their pioneering aircraft achieved an amazing height of 900m (3000ft). Later that year, they safely sent a sheep, rooster, and duck into the air, before Étienne Montgolfier became the first human balloonist (albeit safely tethered to Earth by rope) shortly afterward. A few weeks later, the first free-floating balloon flight carried Jean-Fran├žois Pilàtre de Rozier and Marquis Fran├žois Laurent le Vieux d'Arlandes high over Paris in a Montgolfier balloon.

An early balloon flight by the Montgolfier brothers in 1784.

Illustration: A later flight by the Montgolfier brothers and their passengers over Lyon, France, on January 19, 1784. Hand-colored etching: Enaut et Rapilly, rüe St. Jacques à la ville de Coutances, 1784, courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Hot air balloons evolved into steerable, engine-powered airships called dirigibles, which were pioneered by another Frenchman, Henri Giffard (1825–1882), in the first part of the 19th century. By the end of the 1900s, they'd evolved once more, into huge passenger-carrying balloons called Zeppelins, named for German army officer Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin (1838–1917). Unlike the Montgolfier's balloon (and modern hot-air balloons), airships like this were rigid-framed rubber balloons containing a number of individual cells filled with hydrogen, a very light gas. In the early decades of the 20th century, when wing-powered airplanes were still a very new thing, airships seemed to be the stately future of intercontinental travel. But hydrogen has a huge drawback—it's highly flammable—and a series of spectacular disasters soon put paid to that idea. The worst of these happened in May 1937 when an enormous German airship called the Hindenberg (about 245m or 800ft long) crashed as it landed in New Jersey killing 36 people.

Maybe there were better ways to fly?

Finding our wings

Airships and balloons are vast, clumsy, and cumbersome things: they need a huge volume of lighter-than-air gas to make enough lift to overcome their weight. The giant, fateful Hindenberg, for example, needed something like 200,000 cubic meters (7 million cubic feet) of hydrogen, while even a more modest Zeppelin needed about 14,000 cubic meters (500,000 cubic feet). Modern airplanes carry much bigger loads than these airships without any help from floating gas bags at all—and they do it using wings. Broadly speaking, the larger the plane (or the heavier the load it has to carry) the bigger the wings it needs.

Exactly how wings help a plane to fly is quite a complex thing (you'll find it explained in detail in my article about how planes fly). A plane doesn't necessarily need an engine, but it does need wings: it's the wings that make the upward lift when the engines push the plane forward through the air. If you make a plane go forward without an engine, its wings will still generate lift. That's the idea behind gliders, which are simply planes without engines. As we've seen already, one of the first pioneering historic flights, by Eilmer the Monk in Malmesbury, was essentially a glider flight by a man with wings strapped to his body.

Gliders—and the science of flight—made huge strides forward in the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to a brilliant English aristocrat named Sir George Cayley (1773–1857). Unlike so-called "birdmen" aviators, who tried to fly by flapping wings attached to their bodies, Cayley concentrated most of his efforts on the design of fixed-wing aircraft and figured out how to optimize the wings to maximize lift. He made his first model glider in 1804 and spent the rest of his life refining the design until, in 1853, he was ready to launch a full-sized glider with a human inside it.

Otto Lilienthal flying in a birdman glider, c.1895

Photo: "Birdman" Otto Lilienthal flying one of his gliders in 1895, the year before his death. Photograph attributed to the Wright brothers (a glass negative from the papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright) courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Cayley's work took flight in two different directions, practical and theoretical. From the practical side, it helped to inspire glider makers like Jean-Marie Le Bris (1817–1872) and Otto Lilienthal (1848–1896), who made 2000 daring glider flights before finally crash-landing and killing himself in 1896. Cayley's work also marked the real beginnings of the science of aerodynamics, later extended by Lilienthal's experiments with airfoil design and 20th-century pioneers such as Ernst Mach (1838–1916, who researched supersonic flight, and for whom Mach numbers are named) and Frederick Lanchester (1868–1946, another pioneer of modern airfoil theory). Cayley was the first person to figure out that a plane moves through the air in a balance of four forces: thrust (moving it forward), drag (air resistance, pulling it back), lift (the upward force on the wings), and weight (the force of gravity pulling the plane back down).

Human-powered flying machine by Sir George Cayley.

Illustration: Getting in a flap: One of Sir George Cayley's human-powered flying machines, c.1853. Courtesy of US Library of Congress.

People still fly gliders to this day, but they're typically just small, one- or two-person craft that take great skill to pilot. Though it's just about possible to imagine a glider that could carry more, no glider could ever do what modern jet planes do—ferrying hundreds of people at high speed over deserts, mountains, and oceans, day after day, year in and year out. For that kind of dependable, steady flight, you need more than just a plane with wings; you need a plane with powerful engines.

I can state flatly that heavier than air flying machines are impossible... I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning, or of the expectation of good results from any of the trials we heard of.

Lord Kelvin, 1895/1896

Powered flight

Where would those engines come from? Since the early 18th century, most of the world's mechanical power had come from coal-powered steam engines, the first practical example of which was built by Thomas Newcomen, in England, in 1712. Steam engines were huge dirty beasts, originally much too big and bulky even to drive things like railroad engines, so there was no prospect of using them to power a plane. Even so, that tantalising possibility opened up with the development of smaller, lighter, high-pressure railroad steam engines, by such people as Richard Trevithick (1773–1833) in Britain and Oliver Evans (1773–1833) in the United States.

Ultimately, a number of engineers believed it was perfectly worthwhile to experiment with putting steam engines in planes. It seems a remarkable idea now—using a heavy, coal-powered engine to lift itself off the ground—but there was still no serious, credible alternative to steam at the time. That's why a number of intrepid inventors in different parts of the world seriously experimented with steam airplanes, including Englishman William Henson, Frenchman Clément Ader, and Americans Samuel P. Langley, Hiram Maxim (inventor of the automatic machine gun), and Horatio Phillips. None of these attempts got beyond models and prototypes and, though several made promising flights, none led to the development of a practical, steam-powered airplane.

William Henson's aerial steam carriage illustrated flying over the Thames River in London.

Illustration: William Henson's Aerial Steam Carriage, optimistically sketched making a bold voyage over the Thames River in London c.1843. Although Henson and his partner John Stringfellow were granted a patent in 1842, in reality, even a model of this stupendous steam plane never got off the ground. Courtesy of US Library of Congress.

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The Wright stuff

Orville Wright, Wright brothers memorial in Kill Devil Hills.

Photo: A statue of Orville Wright at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Credit: Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

At the end of the 19th century, gliders were still the state-of-the-art when it came to flying machines, but two talented brothers from Dayton, Ohio soon changed that. Wilbur and Orville Wright were bicycle makers who were also familiar with a new development in powered transportation. Though steam engines still dominated factories and transportation, a very different kind of engine had recently emerged, which could be powered by a relatively clean liquid: gasoline. The first practical engine of this kind was developed in 1867 by a German engineer named Nikolaus August Otto (1832–1891), and a similar engine was used to drive the first gasoline-powered car in 1885 by another German, Karl Benz (1832–1891). Engines like these were smaller, lighter, and much cleaner than steam engines—and that opened up the possibility of using them to power a plane.

The Wright brothers' stroke of genius was to connect two different strands of invention: the glider, which had been driven forward by people such as Cayley, Lilienthal, and the American Octave Chanute (1832–1910), and the gas-powered automobile engine, shaped by Otto and Benz. When the Wrights put a small (9-kilowatt or 12 horsepower) gasoline engine onto a glider, the result was the world's first self-propelled, engine-powered airplane, the Flyer. It would have been perfectly possible for the Wrights to arrive at a practical airplane through nothing more than trial-and-error—that's how many things were invented in centuries gone by—but they actually took a much more scientific approach. As their notebooks and papers clearly reveal, they carried out meticulous experiments into all kinds of different wing shapes and propeller designs, so their approach to invention was much more modern and scientific than most people realize.

Wright brothers Flying Machine patent 1906.

Artwork: The "Flying Machine" patented by the Wright brothers in 1906 was essentially a biplane glider. It's a biplane because it has two parallel main wings (blue); it's also what's called a bicanard, because it has another wing (red) in front of the main wings. The all-important engine (indicated by the yellow spot) and propellers (orange circles at the back) are not shown in this drawing. From US Patent 821393: Flying Machine, by Orville and Wilbur Wright, filed March 23, 1903, granted May 22, 1906, courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office..

Once the Wrights had made the all-important breakthrough, other engineers developed their ideas, while brave aviators tried to push technology even further by making amazing, long-distance flights. The many pioneers included Frenchman Louis Blériot, who crossed the 40km (25 mile) English Channel in 1909; American Glenn Curtiss, who won $10,000 flying from New York City to Albany the following year; Calbraith Rodgers, who became the first person fly across the United States, from New York to California (albeit in many separate hops taking a total of 84 days) in 1911; John Alcock and Arthur Brown, who made the first Atlantic crossing in 16 hours 12 minutes in 1919; Charles Lindbergh, who flew nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927; and Amelia Earhart, who became the first woman to cross the Pacific in 1932.

Bronze statues depicting the first successful powered flight by the Wright Brothers in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

Photo: Bronze statues recreate the Wright brothers' first powered flight in North Carolina. Credit: Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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The coming of the jet

All these planes had one thing in common—they were powered by propeller engines—and, though the planes of the 1930s flew faster and further than the Wright's 1903 Flyer, they still used essentially the same technology. But propellers, originally powered by piston-powered car engines, could spin round only so quickly before tearing themselves to pieces, and engineers soon realized that there was a practical limit to how fast an ordinary engine could go, which set an upper limit to how fast a plane could fly. That didn't matter while planes were carrying only one or two people very short distances, but it became increasingly important with the development of military planes that needed to "outfly" and outmaneuver their enemies, and large passenger planes that could carry numbers of people from one side of the world to the other.

A jet fighter takes off, showing the hot exhaust gas powering it forward.

Photo: Jet planes fire forward by blasting hot exhaust gas backward. Photo by William Banton courtesy of US Air Force, published on Flickr.

So engineers started to ask themselves if it was possible to power planes another way. A glimpse of the future came in 1910, just a few years after the Wrights' pioneering flight, when a Frenchman named Henri-Marie Coandă (1885–1972) flew the first jet-powered airplane, though it was propelled by a huge fan rather than the burning gas used in later planes. It wasn't until the 1930s that modern jet engines properly appeared, thanks to the dogfight rivalry between Englishman Frank Whittle (1907–1996) and his German counterpart, Hans Pabst von Ohain (1911–1998). Though Whittle made the first jet engine in 1928, Ohain built the first jet plane, the Heinkel He-178, in 1939. Whittle and Ohain are popularly remembered as the jet engine's pioneers, though others were crucial to its development, including British engineer Alan Griffith (1893–1963), who outlined the theory of jet engines in 1926.

The arrival of the jet engine was almost as big a breakthrough as the Wright's first pioneering flight. Whittle's original jet engine was a design known as a turbojet (in which cold air streaming into the front burns with fuel to make hot exhaust blowing out of the back that speeds the plane forward). Other types of jets soon appeared in the form of turboprops (jet engines with propellers at the front), turbofans (giant jet engines used on modern airliners), and a variety of other designs (explored in much more detail in my article on jet engines). Engines like this ushered in a whole new era of fast, jet-powered military and passenger planes. And the arrival of jet airliners like the DeHavilland Comet (in 1952), the Sud Aviation Caravelle (1955), the Lockheed Electra (a popular turboprop from 1957), the Boeing 707 (a four-engined jet launched in 1958), the Douglas DC-8 (1958), the Convair 880 and 990 (1959), powered the age of affordable intercontinental travel that we all now take for granted. With its four huge "bypass" turbofan jet engines, the iconic example, the Boeing 747 "Jumbo" jet, can carry 300–500 passengers at speeds of 885km/h (550mph) across whole continents. But people still dreamed of going faster.

Boeing 747 on the roof of the Evergreen Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, by Carol M. Highsmith.

Photo: Jumbo Jet: A full-sized Boeing 747 on the roof of the Evergeen Museum at McMinnville, Oregon.
Courtesy of Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Before long, a typical transatlantic trip across the Atlantic took as little as six hours. That was pretty amazing if you compared it to Charles Lindbergh's 33.5-hour transatlantic flight in 1927, but still not fast enough for many people. Could planes fly any faster? Just how fast could they go? One major landmark engineers identified was going faster than the speed of sound, which is very roughly 1000 km/h (660 mph—though it varies with altitude). In the early decades of the 20th century, no-one knew if this was remotely possible: would a plane flying that fast simply rip itself to pieces? In the 1940s, some of the world's best aero engineers set themselves the challenge of finding out by developing a rocket-powered plane called the X-1. Strapped in its cockpit in October 1947, Major Charles E. ("Chuck") Yeager (1923–) became the first person to fly faster than sound at a speed of 1066 km/h (662 mph). Today, military jets routinely fly much faster. (The world's fastest jet plane, the Lockheed SR-71B "Blackbird," has a top speed of Mach 3, three times faster than the speed of sound, or about 3185 km/h (1979 mph).

SR-71B Blackbird airplane

Photo: The SR-71B Blackbird is still the world's fastest plane, capable of flying at three times the speed of sound (Mach 3). Photo courtesy of NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center.

Once the technical problems of supersonic (faster-than-sound) sound had been conquered, the question was whether conventonal passenger planes could ever fly that fast. In the 1960s and 1970s, engineers in the Soviet Union (Russia and its nearby, politically aligned states) and Europe (specifically Britain and France) decided to built supersonic passenger jets. The Soviet attempt, the Tupolev TU-144, carried cargo and passengers from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, when it was finally withdrawn after proving too expensive and unreliable. Concorde, the much-more-famous Anglo-French equivalent, was a symbol of glamous transatlantic travel from the first flights in 1976 to a terrible crash in Paris in July 2000 that effectively brought its quarter-century history to a tragic, premature end. Though only 16 Concorde were ever built, and lost a reputed $1 billion over their lifetime, they still hold the record for transatlantic passenger flights, flying from London, England to New York in about 3½ hours, compared to about 8½ hours for a conventional jet flight. Concorde's "cruising" speed was 2160 km/h (1350mph), roughly Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound).

Flying by spinning

You can fly by floating straight up or by forcing air across a pair of wings. But there's another way to fly too that combines the best of both worlds: by taking off or landing vertically in a helicopter, which uses a kind of spinning central wing called a rotor. Helicopters were conceived in ancient China: a toy from the ancient East used a clever arrangement of spinning feathers to breeze itself up into the air, not unlike a modern chopper. Although most people think Leonardo da Vinci invented the helicopter, the rotating flying machine he sketched around 1489 never got off the drawing board. And though Sir George Cayley tried to apply some of his pioneering aerodynamic ideas to the problem of vertical takeoff, he too never managed to lift a helicopter off the ground.

A Henry Berliner gyrocopter helicopter hovering over the ground

Photo: A prototype helicopter made by Henry Berliner some time between 1920 and 1925. You can see it has a propeller for forward flight and two counter-rotating rotors for hovering. Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Helicopters as we know them today first appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. The pioneers were Frenchman Louis Breguet (1880–1955), who launched his simple Gyroplane in 1935; German Dr Heinrich Focke (1890–1979), whose Focke-Wulf FA61 helicopter could fly to altitudes of about 2400m (8000ft) and stay there for about an hour and a half; Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva (1895–1936), who invented the Autogyro—half helicopter and half plane—in 1920; and American Henry Berliner (1895–1970), who experimented with winged "gyrocopter" airplanes that had propellers and spinning rotors.

But the real father of practical modern helicopters was surely brilliant Russian aerospace engineer Igor Sikorsky (1889–1972). As a boy, he'd built himself a toy helicopter that was powered by rubber bands, but it took him several more decades to turn this simple childhood dream into a practical flying machine, the VS-300. It set the shape and style of modern copters with a large overhead rotor (for taking off, hovering, and landing) and a small spinning tail rotor (to stop the body of the helicopter counter-rotating). Though modern helicopters look like massive propellers mounted on cabinets, they're actually powered by one or two jet engines (known as turboshafts), which use complex gear mechanisms to power both rotors.

To infinity... and beyond!

Solar-powered airplane by NASA

Photo: NASA's 1990s Pathfinder aircraft was powered by solar cells and propellers; is this the shape of eco-friendly planes to come? Picture courtesy of NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center.

The story of flight didn't stop with the invention of the jet engine. Rocket engines, which look similar to jet engines but work in a rather different way, blasted the story off in a whole new direction—up and out and far into space. (That's a whole different tale, explored more in my article on space rockets.) In the 1970s, engineers fused the idea of a plane flying with wings and a rocket engine that could burn in space to make the Space Shuttle, the first reusable plane that could roar into space and then glide back to Earth again.

Today, the quest is to build planes that can ferry tourists up to space and back—a milestone that seems likely to be achieved in the next few decades. Meanwhile, back on Earth, though there's no longer any particular need to make passenger planes that much bigger or faster, there are other pressing problems to solve, notably environmental ones. Can we make planes that are quieter, more energy efficient, and less polluting? Already, ingenious engineers are experimenting with solar planes and battery powered electric craft that use electric motors and propellers instead of roaring, polluting jet engines.

Where will flight take us tomorrow? How will this story end? In exactly the same way it began, with a bold determination to "rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond" so we can "fully understand the world" in which we live. Watch this space!

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