On weekday mornings, Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith motors in from the suburbs, to Washington's unremittingly modern Natural Air and Musuem. There in a spare, windowless office, Gibbs-Smith sets to work as the first occupant of the Charles Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History.
Gibbs-Smith came to Washington, and the Lindberg Chair, to continue his research and plead his case, historically, for the Wright brothers.Far from the tourists, from the bi-planes and space capsules on display below. Gibbs-Smith labors on a manuscript tentatively entitled "Claims to First Flight."
For a student of aeronautics of early flight and the Wright brothers, this country is without question the place to be," says Gibbs-Smith. "For the scholar, everything h* as meaning here. I'll be able to go to Kitty Hawk, to Daytone, to the places where the Wrights did their work."
The Wright brothers are Gibbs-Smith's scholarly passion, but in a town where endowments and research grants are a cottage industry, he could well be just another Chair in the crowd were it not for his distinctive characteristics.
Gibbs-Smith is an Englishman, and the irony of his status in a field which is literally an American invention is not lost on him.
"Not long ago," says Gibbs-Smith, "I was asked by the Encyclopedia Britannica to write the section on Orville and Wilbur, which I must say surprised me. No one in America was inclined to do it, apparently. It seems to me that most Americans are a bit jaded about their role in aeronautics.
"I've always been surprised, for example, that many Americans don't regard the moon landing as terribly significant, as the miracle it was. I must confess that whenever I see Michael Collins, our director, walking about here, I do think of him as rather a special person, as a man on another plane, you know. It's quite extraordinary."
Professorial, almost tweedy in his appearance, Gibbs-Smith, who is 68 and married, speaks with the humor, the pauses and asides, the variegated syntax that Americans associate with upper-class English.
his interests are catholic, and his discourse wonders from Wellington to Metro, from rockets and calvary to esthetics, from mysterious explosions in Siberia to the French role in aviation.
"An interesting race, the French," says Gibbs-Smith. "You could give them, say, a perfectly gppd pair of scissors like this, and rather than learn anything, they'd set them aside and try to build their own. That's exactly what they did before World War I, you see, when they had acess to all of America's work in aviation. Could have done them some good against the Germans, don't you think?"
What makes Charles Gibbs-Smith's role in aviation more remarkable is that he came to the study as a second calling. In 1932, at age 23, Gibbs-Smith became assistant keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was an assosciation which lasted until 1971, when he was named keeper emeritus.
His wartime experience in the Ministry of Information and the Royal Observer Corps honed his interest in aeronautics, and Gibbs-Smith returned to the Victoria and Albert with two preoccupations.
"The aviation history I was exposed to in the ROC was principally the consecutive date variety," says Gibbs-Smith. "I wanted something more than "the Wrights flew in this year and Glenn Curtiss flew in that year. I tried to find reasons and causes rather than dates. Frankly, I got hooked on the thing."
Gibbs-Smith's aviation writing and research expanded after his return to the museum, and he mingled his works on aeronautics with publications from the facility. Titles such as "Pioneers of the Aeroplane" and "Aviation: An Historical Survey" appeared next to "The Fashionable Lady in the 19th Century" and "The Great Exhibition of 1981." Two disciplines not being enough, Gibbs-Smith wrote and published three spy novels between 1953 and 1957.
By 1960, and the publication of "The Aeroplane: An Historical Survey," Gibbs-Smith was being celebrated throughout Europe as the leading student of aeronautics.
There followed a series of booklets on flight written for the Science Museum in London, and larger works on flying machines, European aviation, and the flight claims of such pioneers as Clement Ader - "an interesting, lying old Frenchman," says Gibbs-Smith.
"Historians spend so much time correcting errors and false claims about early aviation," says Gibbs-Smith, "that there is little time for doing positive work. We're all interested in putting real, decent history together rather than having to pull things apart. Here at the SMithsonian, for the first time in my life, I'm pushed full time into work I like."
After leaving the Victoria and Albert Museum in an active roll in 1975, Gibbs-Smith turned his attention to yet passion - parapsychology. As a fellow in London's College of Psychic Studies, Gibbs-Smith edited college publications and devoted much time to the study of out-of-body phenomena. "I'm particularly interested in the studies of clairoyance and telepathy, you know. I suppose it has come-thing to do with my father's back-ground in psychiatry. Had to let parapsychology go, at least temporarily, of course, to take the Lindbergh Chair. It was unthinkable to pass on such an opportunity.
"I fell I've done about all the work I can in aeronautics, but what is remarkable about being in America is that you're likely to find someone hereabouts with an interest in your interest. All the best work in parapsychology, for example, is being done in this coutry. The Smithsonian itself has recently begun work in parapsychology you see. This opportunities are extraordinary.
"Perhaps it's because you parttake of so many bloods," says Gibbs-Smith on his way to the elevator. "I find elements of your public life almost incomprehensible, I must confess. Your television programming is an mystery. And there are so many lawyers, so many specialist, so many words. But everywhere you turn there are people at work on all sorts of questions. Its a bewildering, extraordinary country."