“The Wright Brothers” and Thinking Straight


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There are lots of reasons to love the story of the Wright brothers.  They came from nowhere to solve the great problem of flight, one that had defeated so many others.  They showed straight-up physical courage when flying these dangerous machines, and would do it wearing suits and ties.  They built a secret base in the wilderness of Kitty Hawk for their amazing experiments.   They’re like Jules Verne characters come to life, but without the whole conquer-the-world thing.

Yet one thing that David McCullough’s new biography makes clear is that they succeeded when so many others failed because they had a better approach to invention: systematic and incremental development instead of the flash of genius.

The flash story is how invention is almost always described.   An apple falls on Newton’s head and he wonders if the Moon is falling around the Earth.  Edison thinks “What if you put so much current in a wire that it glowed white-hot, but kept it from burning up by putting a glass envelope around it?”  Tim Berners-Lee gets annoyed that all these connected computers have all these incompatible file formats, and adds a few text markers to them so that a single browser program can display them all.

It’s a good way to tell the story to children, because it makes invention seem like much less work.   Come up with the good idea, patent it, and fame and wealth are yours!

It’s nonsense, of course.  To start with, creative people have ideas all the time.    David E. H. Jones, author of the wonderful old Daedalus columns in Nature and New Scientist, describes the process in his book “The Aha! Moment: A Scientist’s Take On Creativity”.   He calls it the Random Idea Generator, or RIG,  a subconscious process that is constantly throwing up combinations of things.  The trick is not to get ideas; it’s to winnow them.  You have to filter the ideas down to get the ones that are useful, feasible, and doable by you.   Useful means something that a few people want a whole lot, or a lot of people want a little.  Feasible means that it can be done in a reasonable time frame, like a year for a nice idea, and a few years for a great one.   Doable by you means that you have some means of actually making it work.  Patenting ideas that you can’t implement is trolling.

So in the case of the Wrights, it was NOT that they had one great idea that made flight possible.  They had a whole set of them, each related to the problem they faced at the time.  They started by writing to the Smithsonian in 1899 to get any literature on the then-current state of aeronautics.   They then carefully studied what Lilienthal and Chanute had discovered.  They realized that control was as important as mere lift, and studied the flight of birds to come up with their famous wing-warping method.  They knew that Lilienthal himself had been killed while flying a glider, so they had to do unmanned trials first.   Then they needed an open place to practice, one with steady winds, so they wrote to the US Weather Bureau to find the best such place, and so came to Kitty Hawk.  It had long stretches of soft sand to crash into.  Better still, it was away from prying eyes – their only neighbors were a Coast Guard station a couple of miles away.  They needed a place to stay while there, so they built their own cabin and workshop.  They practiced with gliders, and found that the existing equations and tables for lift were wrong.  They invented the wind tunnel to measure it themselves.  They then needed a light, powerful engine, so they had a colleague cast and machine one out of an aluminum block.   The plane then needed a push to get it going, so they devised a rope catapult driven by a falling weight.

This then gets them to one of the most iconic pictures in American history, the one McCullough uses for his book cover:

Orville at controls, Wilbur running along beside

First powered flight in history.  Orville at controls, Wilbur running along beside.

There they are, cooperating and focused on something ingenious and wonderful.   This is how Americans like to see themselves!   It’s the animating story of every startup.

Once they flew for the first time in December 1903, they gave up on Kitty Hawk.  It was too remote, the biting flies were hideous, and they had almost been swept away in a hurricane.  They returned home to Dayton Ohio and practiced in a nearby field, constantly improving their machine, until the 1905 Flyer could stay up for up to 40 minutes.

Having solved the main technical problems, they then turned to sales.  They pitched it to the US Army, who wasn’t all that interested.   The US military didn’t get concerned about air power until much later, December 7th, 1941, to be exact.   The Wrights were already getting feelers from European officers, though, so they packed up a machine and went to France in 1908.   It was a sensation.   Thousands turned out to see every flight, including royalty.   The Euros had been trying for flight for the previous few years, and were abashed that these outsiders had gotten it first, but also tremendously excited.

In November 1908 the Aero-Club de France threw a huge banquet in their honor and awarded them gold medals and a $1000 prize.   At the banquet Wilbur gave a particularly gracious and eloquent speech.   Let me copy it here just to show that he was not the stern, taciturn mechanic that he’s usually portrayed as:

For myself and my brother I thank you for the honor you are doing us and for the cordial reception you have tendered us this evening.

If I had been born in your beautiful country and had grown up among you, I could not have expected a warmer welcome than has been given me.  When we did not know each other, we had no confidence in each other; today, when we are acquainted, it is otherwise: we believe each other, and we are friends.  I thank you for this.

In the enthusiasm being shown around me, I see not merely an outburst intended to glorify a person, but a tribute to an idea that has always impassioned mankind.   I sometimes think that the desire to fly after the fashion of birds is an ideal handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.

Scarcely ten years ago, all hope of flying had almost been abandoned: even the most convinced had become doubtful, and I confess that, in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that men would not fly for fifty years.  Two years later, we ourselves were making flights.  This demonstration of my inability as a prophet gave me such a shock that I have ever since distrusted myself and have refrained from all prediction – as my friends of the press, especially, well know.   But it is not really necessary to look too far into the future; we see enough already to be certain that it will be magnificent.  Only let us hurry and open the roads.

Once again, I thank you with all my heart, and in thanking you I should like it understood that I am thanking all of France.

That got a standing ovation!   And he had to autograph over two hundred menus.

But Orville didn’t see this triumph.  Two months earlier he had been in a terrible crash while showing the plane to the Army in Fort Myers, Virginia.  A propeller had cracked, which caused so much vibration that a guy wire snapped, wrapped around it, and shattered it, sending the plane straight down into the ground. It killed his passenger, an Army Lieutenant, and broke Orville’s leg and four ribs.   His passenger could have been Theodore Roosevelt!   Their sister Katherine immediately rushed to his side, and nursed him through months of recovery.

They both made it over to Europe by early 1909, with Katherine drawing as much interest as her brothers.   Orville did get back up in the air six months after his accident, and was able to train both French and Italian pilots.   Then they all returned to the US to more acclaim, and a spectacular flight up and down the Hudson and around the Statue of Liberty.  A million New Yorkers came out to see them.

But after that their lives got darker.  Everyone with technical talent got into aviation, and their records were soon surpassed.   Wilbur spent a lot of time defending their patents, and trying to get a proper business set up for building aircraft. That seemed to be where their enormous ingenuity reached its limits – they didn’t have the heart or skills for scaling up their inventions.   It’s a well-known problem among startups to this day, and venture capitalists will often replace the founder as CEO when things get serious.

The strain killed Wilbur.  He was traveling incessantly to raise money and sell product, and it wore him out.   He caught typhoid fever in Boston in 1912, and died six weeks later at age 45.

Orville had neither the interest or energy, given his injuries, to expand the company, and sold it in 1915.  By the time of the US entry into World War I in 1917, the Feds were sick of the patent feuding among the inventors, and forced them to all to enter a common pool for a payoff of $2 million each.  Orville last piloted a plane in 1918, but was involved with NACA, the predecessor of NASA, almost until his death in 1948 at age 77.

Their ultimate tribute came much later.  When Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon in 1969, he was carrying a piece of muslin from the 1903 Flyer.

But, yes, they stopped contributing to aviation by about 1910.   They were surpassed, as everyone is in the end, and got too involved with growing their business and maintaining their IP to keep up.  But they showed everyone else the method of success – identify each issue as it comes up and knock it down.  It’s not so much a stream of brilliant insights – it’s insights focused on what prevents progress right now.   Don’t Think Different, Think Straight.


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