On October 21, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles unveiled its new design for state license plates. The new design, “Sunrise in Ohio”, is a riot of symbolism. Inspired by the Great Seal of the State of Buckeye, the imagery includes a stylized sun rising over low hills and a field of yellow wheat, flanked by an urban skyline and the silhouette of a child playing on a swing, accompanied by a friendly dog. To complete the picture, the iconic Wright Flyer flies away, pulling up a banner proclaiming the “Birthplace of Aviation”.
“We wanted the new Ohio license plate to reflect the heart and soul of our state and to sum up where we have been, who we are and where we are going,” Governor Mike DeWine said. “The images on our new license plate symbolize what makes Ohio beautiful, unique and extraordinary.”
Except someone messed up. The eagle-eyed Ohioans quickly noticed that the Wright brothers’ plane appeared to be pushing rather than pulling the banner. The Flyer was actually pointing rearward, to the embarrassment of the Ohio BMV. The BMV corrected the picture – literally turning the tide – but not before 35,000 plaques had already been printed and the story went viral on national media.
As the misadventures unfolded, the Ohio license plate blunder was more comic than tragic, albeit a bad day at the office for someone. When graphic designers don’t pay attention in story class, it ends up haunting them.
In all fairness, the Wright Flyer looks upside down, with its tail in the front unlike modern airplanes, whose tails narrow towards the rear. A strange bird, the impact of the Flyer was also overlooked by many at the time. “Fifty-seven seconds, eh? noted a reporter for the Dayton Daily Journal, on the first flight to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. “If it had been fifty-seven minutes, it might have been a news item. “
Ironically, the significance of that first powered flight in 1903, and the escalation of technology since, has contributed to the historic amnesia of the present. Although Wilbur Wright died at the age of 45 in 1912, his brother Orville lived until 1948. Biographer David McCullough said: “He lived to see aviation transformed by jet propulsion, the introduction of the rocket, [and] breaking the sound barrier in 1947. His Ohioan colleague Neil Armstrong, brought a tissue sample from the wing of the Wright Flyer with him to the moon in 1969, completing an odyssey barely imaginable a generation before.
Faced with dizzying changes, when the past gives way little to the present, how can we give meaning to the dizzying upheavals of the future? How do those of us who follow the Wright Brothers and Neil Armstrong avoid the conclusion from that other Midwestern pioneer, Henry Ford: It’s tradition. We don’t want a tradition. We want to live in the present and the only story worth a barrage of tinkerers is the story we are making today.
We have to start, as always, in the classroom. If nothing else, the Ohio BMV blunder highlights the need for history teaching. With all due respect to Henry Ford, the detached progress of humanity only leads to a hollow future. The current emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) study programs has its place, but only in the context of human purpose and humanistic understanding. A generation that loses sight of where it came from and where it is headed cannot hope for anything good.
Amid the disbelief and online merriment surrounding the license plate fiasco, let’s not lose sight of where we’re headed together.