Radio Telescope on Track

This post was originally published by Australia’s Science Channel on 29th July 2016 but was removed when the website was updated.

David Gozzard is a PhD student who has found himself on an interesting journey to remote Australia. In this blog, he shares some of the fun work he’s been up to!

When I started my PhD in experimental physics, I knew there would be a lot of travelling involved, mostly to conferences, meetings and workshops both in Australia and overseas. What I did not realize was how often I would find myself travelling to remote areas of Australia and South Africa to conduct field work. I’m not complaining. The field work is both challenging and rewarding, it gets me out of the lab, and it means I get to visit some of the world’s premier scientific facilities.

And that’s where I am now. After a four-hour flight from Perth to Sydney, a short hop from Sydney to Tamworth, and a two-hour drive from Tamworth to Narrabri (lugging two heavy cases full of scientific equipment), I find myself at the Paul Wild Observatory, home of CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array, the largest radio interferometer telescope in the southern hemisphere.


Antennas 1 – 5 of the Australia Telescope Compact Array.

Built in the 1980s, the Compact Array is a radio telescope comprising six 270-tonne
dish-antennas, five of which can be driven to various positions along a 3 km track in order to change their view of the sky. Although it’s not as famous as The Dish at Parkes, the Compact Array holds the distinction of being the most scientifically productive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. In radio engineering, the plural of “antenna” is “antennas”. Biologists, calm down.


Me, driving antenna 3 during an array reconfiguration (see video below).

This is my 3rd trip to the Compact Array. I’m here to test equipment developed for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope. Radio telescope arrays like the Compact Array and the SKA need high-precision reference signals from atomic clocks to be transmitted to each antennas in order for the array to function properly. Over long transmission distances, the precision of these signals can become degraded and when that happens, the array fails.

On something the size of the Compact Array (6 km from one end to the other), this is not a problem; but for the SKA, which will have antennas located up to 150 km away from the centre of the site, signal degradation is a big problem. The equipment I have brought with me is designed to compensate for the degradation of the reference signal by measuring how the reference signal has been perturbed and modifying the transmission to compensate.


My signal stabilization test equipment setup at ATCA.

My supervisor and I have been developing this stabilization system over the past two years at The University of Western Australia, and we have tested its performance extensively in the laboratory. Now the time has come to plug it into a working radio telescope to confirm that it works in the real world!

Because this is a synthesis imaging telescope, every few weeks the antenna dishes are moved to different positions along a track to change how they image the sky. I was lucky enough to be allowed to take part in one of these array reconfigurations. Each of the six antennas weighs 270 tonnes and has a top speed of 4 km/h. Reconfiguration can take 1 – 2 hours depending on the extent of that day’s changes. Antenna 2 shown in the video was driven nearly 2 km in this reconfiguration job.

The Compact Array is the best facility to perform these tests because it was constructed with an almost unique receiver system that allows us to run the array using both its conventional reference distribution system and our stabilized reference system at the same time. Our system runs over an extra 77 km of fibre-optic cable to a communications hut and back. The telescope data from the conventional reference system can be compared directly with ours to see if the stabilization system is working as designed.

The Compact Array is the best facility to perform these tests because it was constructed with an almost unique receiver system that allows us to run the array using both its conventional reference distribution system and our stabilized reference system at the same time. Our system runs over an extra 77 km of fibre-optic cable to a communications hut and back. The telescope data from the conventional reference system can be compared directly with ours to see if the stabilization system is working as designed.


Me, sitting in the ATCA control room.

Working with the CSIRO team is an absolute pleasure. Everyone is very professional, they all know the systems they are responsible for insideout, and they are very helpful. The experiments that I have performed at the Compact Array would not have been possible without the efforts they made to accommodate my test schedule and the modifications I needed on some of the antennas.


This photo is the group of us who contributed to the work on this trip. The people in the photo are left-to-right: David Gozzard, Mike Hill, Sascha Schediwy, Peter Mirtschin, Jamie Stevens and Jock McFee (not pictured – Brett Lennon).

They also took a keen interest in the experiment itself. Many of the staff at the Compact Array reminisce about how it used to be, only a few years ago, when the site was buzzing with astronomers from Australia and around the world. Now, astronomers can operate the telescope remotely from Sydney or, in some cases, from the other side of the world. As a result, the onsite staff have seen their ranks halve as less support is needed. The engineers and other support staff miss being able to quiz astronomers about what they are using the telescope for, and what they are discovering.

Apart from the Compact Array itself, the observatory is home to a lot of Australian science history. The array occupies a site formerly used by the Culgoora radioheliograph (pictured below), which CSIRO used from the mid-60s through to the mid-80s
to perform groundbreaking studies of radio emissions from the Sun and solar outbursts.


One dish of the Culgoora radioheliograph.

Most of the 96 dish-antennas from the radioheliograph still surround the site in a 3 km wide circle. Within that circle are also the Sydney University Stellar Interferometer, until recently used to make measurements of the size of distant stars; the CSIRO Applied Physics Solar Telescope, which studied the visible light from the Sun in conjunction with the radioheliograph; the Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network Telescope, used to study churning gas inside the Sun; and an IPS Radio and Space Services telescope, which monitors solar outbursts to forecast how they will affect space craft and radio communications.

As I write this, my time at the Compact Array is coming to an end. My experiments have worked, the stabilization system has performed well, and I am preparing to report the results to the SKA Office. And the results are looking good. The system reduces signal fluctuations to one part in ten trillion, over a 1-second period. If your wristwatch
was that stable, after 300,000 years it would be off by less than one second. This is more than 10 times better than the stability required by the SKA.

Now I just have to pack up my equipment and get ready for the journey home.

Further reading

Measuring Up for World Metrology Day

This post is a modified version of a World Metrology Day article I wrote for Australia’s Science Channel.

Saturday 20th May is World Metrology Day.

I’m not surprised if you hadn’t heard of it. I was three years in to a PhD in metrology before I found out we had a day for it.

Metrology is the science of measurement. It is an important foundation of other experimental sciences and is also a critical component of a nation’s ability to conduct business. Metrology considered to comprise three different fields:

Scientific metrology focusses on the definition of units of measurement (e.g. the kilogram, the metre, etc), how to actually make the measurements, and how to reliably trace a measurement back to an official reference.

Industrial metrology is about the application of measurement to manufacturing and other industrial and social applications. Industrial metrology is a very important factor in a nation’s engineering capability.

Legal metrology concerns the statutory requirements of measurement for trade, taxation, and protection of the public. Whenever farming produce is weighed, petrol is pumped, or shares are traded, the measurements (in these cases; weight, volume, and time) need to meet strict government controls on accuracy and precision.

Nearly every country has a metrology institute, involved in all of these important aspects of measurement. In Australia, we have the National Measurement Institute (NMI). America has the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the UK have the National Physical Laboratory.

World Metrology Day is an international event commemorating the signing of the Metre Convention on 20th May 1875. The Metre Convention established international cooperation to develop the metric system and the International System of Units (SI).


Signatories of the Metre Convention. Technically, America uses the metric system. Somebody should probably tell them.

Measure for measure

For the past three-and-a-bit years I have been pursuing a PhD in optical metrology — I use light to measure stuff.

In particular, I work on the transmission of atomic clock signals for use by radio telescopes and other space science experiments. Over the years, atomic clocks have become more and more precise, and today we need new technologies in order to transmit the atomic clock signals to another location for use in scientific or industrial measurements.


My metrology lab.

Measuring up

The next few years hold some exciting developments for metrologists. We will soon re-define two of the most basic measurements we use every day, the kilogram, and the second.

The SI system has seven basic units of measurement. These are: the metre, the kilogram, the second, the ampere, the Kelvin, the mole, and the candela. All other units that we use to measure stuff, such as volts or kilowatts, a derived from these basic units.

The second is currently defined using caesium atomic clocks. The caesium within the atomic clock emits microwaves at around 9 GHz, and this frequency is used as the “tick” from which the second is defined.

As atomic clocks have got better, another type of atomic clock that uses atoms of ytterbium have proved to be more stable and precise than caesium-based clocks. These clocks emit light at a frequency around 518 THz, that is, they tick at around 518 trillion times per second. In a few years’ time, ytterbium clocks might become the new way to define time.

The second, and most of the other SI base units, are defined using physical constants. For example, the metre is defined as the distance light travels in 1/299792458th of a second. However, the kilogram is the only unit that is still defined by a physical object. A platinum-iridium ingot in a vault in France is defined to be the kilogram.


NIST’s copy of the kilogram.

Metrologists are working to find a better way to define the kilogram in terms of fundamental constants so that any metrology laboratory around the world can more easily make a precise and accurate measurement of the mass of the kilogram.

The leading contender is a device called a Watt balance that uses electromagnets to convert the mass of the kilogram into units of electrical power, Watts, which can be traced back to fundamental physical constants.

You can even download plans to build your own Watt balance. The US NIST released plans for a DIY Watt balance made out of LEGO. It’s millions of times less precise than NIST’s Watt balance, but about 10 to 100 times more precise than your kitchen scales (depending on how good your building skills are).


NIST’s LEGO Watt Balance

Metrology is an important part of our modern civilization. It is as fundamental to our way of life as electricity, or the internet. The progress of science and technology depends on the progress of our ability to make accurate and precise measurements.

Great Australians — Anthony Michell

We Australians excel at remembering and celebrating our sporting heroes, from cricketers to particularly successful race horses, but are not so good at celebrating the great people who helped build our civilization, particularly when those builders are Australian. Today, I want to celebrate the birthday of a revolutionary Australian engineer, A. G. M. Michell.


Innovator and Inventor

Anthony George Maldon Michell was an Australian engineer who made enormous contributions to a wide range of engineering sciences, from publishing the seminal work on structural optimization, to the invention of the Fluid-film Thrust Bearing. Michell’s inventions operate quietly in the background, but have made a huge impact on our every-day lives.

That's the guy.

Anthony George Maldon Michell (21 June 1870 – 17 February 1959) — engineer

Early life and education

Michell was born in London in 1870 while his parents were visiting from Australia, but grew up and attended primary school in Victoria. He returned to England to attend Grammar school and spent a year studying at Cambridge. He returned to Australia in 1889 to study engineering at the University of Melbourne.

Bearing the load

Of all of Michell’s inventions and innovations, the one that has had the greatest impact is the Michell Bearing, or Fluid-film Thrust Bearing, which he patented in 1905. Michell created a bearing with tilting load-pads that would maintain a thin film of lubricating oil between the metal surfaces. He mathematically derived the pressure distribution in the oil so that the pivot for the tilting pads could be optimally placed to ensure that the pads tilt automatically, under varying load, to the most efficient geometry. At the start of the 20th century, this bearing was revolutionary (pun intended). It could sustain enormous thrust loads with minimal wear and without overheating, while being only one tenth of the size of the bearings it replaced.

Under pressure, do do do didi do do...

Michell thrust bearing — the pads tilt automatically to the most efficient geometry

The low-friction of Michell’s bearings made them much more efficient. Within a decade they had found almost universal application in generators and ships’ thrust blocks. There was some reluctance by the British to adopt Michell Bearings in their ships, until the discovery that the German Navy were using Michell Bearings in their WWI U-Boats, which gave the U-Boats a range and speed that surprised the Royal Navy.

As well as being efficient, the low-wear of Michell Bearings mean they need little maintenance and are very reliable. A Michell Bearing installed at the Holtwood Hydroelectric Power Plant in Pennsylvania in 1912, supporting 165 tonnes of turbine and 40 tonnes of water pressure, is still in operation today. That bearing has been estimated to have a maintenance-free life of over 1000 years.

Michell Bearings, for their strength, efficiency, and reliability are still used on all large ships, power plants and turbines today.

Going with the flow

Another of Michell’s brilliant inventions is the Cross-flow turbine, which has found applications in hydroelectricity generation. This turbine is not used as often as the more common Kaplan, Francis, or Pelton type turbines because it has a lower maximum efficiency. However, cross-flow turbines have a much better efficiency than any of these three when operating at partial load. This gives cross-flow turbines an advantage in small-scale hydroelectric power generation, in situations, such as small rivers, where water flow and pressure can vary widely over the year. Cross-flow turbines are also easier to build, are easier to maintain, and are partially self-cleaning due to the way in which water flows through the blades of the rotor.

Does that count as giving credit?

Cross-flow turbine — image blatantly stolen from Wikipedia

Other innovations

Michell’s other notable innovations include the first published work on structural optimization. Unfortunately, Michell was ahead of his time and this field of research did not gain momentum until computers became a useful research tool some half-century later.

Michell also designed a crankless engine that drew on his work on the thrust bearing and used slipper-blocks on a slanted wobble-plate to convert the reciprocal motion of the pistons into rotary motion of an output shaft. By eliminating the crankshaft, connecting rods, and associated bearings, Michell’s crankless engines could be lighter and more compact than conventional automotive and stationary engines. Proper dynamic design of the wobble-plate also made the engine very low in vibration. Despite successful demonstrations, improved efficiency, and several licensed derivatives, the crankless engine failed to gain wide-spread acceptance and the company formed to produce and market the technology was placed into receivership.

Might be pushing it a bit there...

Michell’s crankless engine — image stolen from somewhere else

Later life

Michell was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and received several prestigious awards including the Kernot Memorial Medal for distinguished engineering achievement in Australia, and the James Watt International Medal. He continued to make major contributions in engineering research until his death in 1959 at the age of 88.


When asked to list great Australian inventions, most Australians might include the Hills Hoist, Vegemite, the Victa lawnmower, and not much else. Michell, and his bearings that transformed movement and power in the 20th century, deserve to be amongst the first things a proud Australian should include on their list.

What the Detection of Gravitational Waves Means

Unless you live under a rock, the announcement in February of this year of the detection of Gravitational Waves by LIGO cannot have escaped your attention. Scientists around the world celebrated the achievement, and public curiosity about what all the scientists were yelling about was high enough that the world’s media ran the story for several days. Physicists and science communicators, whether they had anything to do with the discovery or not, were called upon to explain to the public what all the fuss was about.

If two Black Holes crash in deep space, and there is no detector to hear them, do they still make a Gravitational Wave?

The enormous release of energy from the collision of two Black Holes, detected for the first time

For a public that had never heard of Gravitational Waves before the announcement of their discovery, a key question that needed answering was, “So what does it mean?” Many scientists and science communicators did an outstanding job of answering this question, but their responses often left out an important element, that is, they did not answer the implied question, “what does it mean for me?”

Following the announcement earlier this week of a second Gravitational Wave detection (and another detection candidate), I want to take the opportunity to outline some of the ways in which the discovery of Gravitational Waves directly affects the average member of the public, but in the interest of providing a complete answer, I will first recap the importance of the discovery from a scientific perspective.

1) Amazing Achievement

First of all, the detection of Gravitational Waves is significant because it is direct confirmation of a prediction made 100 years ago by Albert Einstein. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is the best model physicists have for describing the action of gravity and the behaviour of the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. Scientists constantly try to invent new experiments to push our understanding of the universe to the breaking point. It is by knowing the point at which our understanding of the universe fails that we are able to make the greatest progress. General Relativity has survived every test it has been subjected to for 100 years. Even the fact that GPS functions properly is a demonstration that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is correct.

In 1916, Einstein used General Relativity to predict that bodies orbiting each other, such as the Sun and Earth or two black holes, warp spacetime such that energy from the two bodies is carried away as ripples in the very fabric of the cosmos. These are Gravitational Waves, and their detection is not only another success for Einstein and General Relativity, but for the power of human ingenuity.

Insert fat joke here.

Gravitational Waves are ripples in spacetime caused by massive bodies in orbit

The LIGO detectors are the most sensitive instruments ever created and represent the culmination of 50 years of work by thousands of scientists. Although the first of the detected Gravitational Wave events represents an explosion 50 times more powerful than the power output of all the stars in the universe combined, the energy of the event has spread out and weakened during the 1.4 billion light-year trip to Earth, and so the LIGO detection represents the smallest amount of energy ever successfully detected. The very fact that humanity has the ability to detect Gravitational Waves is something we, as a species, can be proud of.

Couldn't think of funny alt-text.

The Advanced LIGO detectors in Livingston and Hanford

2) A New Spectrum, a New Science

The two confirmed and one candidate Gravitational Wave detections represent the beginning of a new era in studying the universe, a new way of doing astronomy, Gravitational Wave Astronomy.

All of astronomy, and everything we have discovered about our universe through astronomy, has been done using light. Whether we use radio telescopes, optical telescopes, or gamma-ray telescopes, all of these devices detect energy from the electro-magnetic spectrum, they all detect some form of light. Gravitational Waves are not a type of light. They exist in a completely different spectrum.

The Gravitational Wave spectrum gives astronomers a completely new way of studying the universe because the properties of Gravitational Waves are very different to those of electro-magnetic waves. Unlike light, Gravitational Waves are not absorbed by matter. They pass unhindered through the Earth, interstellar gas clouds, and entire galaxies. Unlike light, they cannot be blocked by stuff getting in the way. Gravitational Waves allow us to see past the bright glare of galaxies, and through vast interstellar dust clouds to corners of the universe our other telescopes will never be able to see.

We can also use Gravitational Waves to study things that don’t emit light. As far as our current theoretical understanding tells us, the collision of two black holes, like the Gravitational Waves events seen so far, should not emit any light. These events, and events like them, can only be studied using the Gravitational Wave spectrum.

Since the end of its first, and now famous, observing run, LIGO has been undergoing upgrades that will roughly double the sensitivity of the detector. With this boost in sensitivity, and based on the three events detected so far, Gravitational Wave physicists expect LIGO to detect around one event per week when it is switched back on later this year. With that amount of data, Gravitational Wave Astronomy will become a field in its own right, and one that will revolutionize our understanding of the universe by studying regions of the cosmos previously invisible to us.


Gravitational Waves open up a new spectrum with which to study the universe

3) What it means for me

The detection is an amazing technological achievement and Gravitational Wave detectors are some of the most advanced pieces of equipment in the world. To be able to build their detector, scientists and engineers have had to invent new technologies along the way, and these new technologies have a huge range of spin-offs and applications that will impact on our every-day lives.

To build the LIGO detectors, super-reflective mirror coatings and polishing techniques had to be developed, vibration isolators that guard against everything from minor earthquakes to people coughing had to be built, hyper-precise lasers and sensitive read-out systems had to be invented, and all of this had to operate in hard vacuum, even special super-hard glues had to be formulated. To actually detect the signal, advanced analysis software had to be written. This is only a taste of the work involved. The complete list of innovations by Gravitational Wave scientists would take dozens of pages to list like this, and I don’t even know most of them!

With this type and variety of advanced technology in the works, it is almost inevitable that other applications would be found for the scientists’ innovations. Just one example from the University of Western Australia, where I am studying for my PhD, is the Rio Tinto Gravity Gradiometer. This new technology, which will detect ore bodies from an aeroplane by measuring tiny changes in the Earth’s gravitational field, spun-off from Gravitational Wave research at UWA.

This thing sits in the lab across the hall from me.

The VK1 airborne Gravity Gradiometer will detect ore bodies below the ground, and spun-out from Gravitational Wave research

Over the coming decades, technology originally developed for Gravitational Wave detectors will be worth billions of dollars, create many thousands of jobs, and will enrich our every-day lives for generations to come.


If you’d like to learn more, you can go here to watch PhD comics explain Gravitational Waves.

The Value of a PhD

Stop telling me to “get a real job”: PhDs drive economic growth, as well as the progress of human knowledge

As a PhD student, questions I am often asked very shortly after “What do you do for a living?” include “What’s the point of that?” and “So when are you going to get a real job?” Science communication practice over the past couple of years (such as competing in 3-Minute Thesis and FameLab) has helped me to come up with concise answers to the first of these questions that satisfy the majority of my interrogators. I am also quick to point out that studying for a PhD is a real job and to explain the benefits of PhDs and academics to the nation. However, people often seem to disagree with my assertions about the contribution of PhDs to the public and to the economy, to the extent that many will repeat the question the next time they see me.

PhDs in your life

Everywhere you look you will find technology that was invented or developed by people with PhDs. The technologies your smartphone and computer are based on cannot be built without a working knowledge of quantum mechanics, GPS would fail without knowing how to apply Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and the medical practices that keep you healthy are only possible due to our understanding of the immensely complex system that is the human body. Tens, hundreds, or thousands of PhDs have contributed to the technologies and services that you rely on and enjoy every day. You owe your health and wellbeing to the diligent research of generations of PhDs.

A PhD student has many similarities with a tradesman’s apprentice. The apprentice/student learns the tools and skills of their trade guided by the knowledge and experience of their master/supervisor, producing useful work as they learn. Just as we expect an apprentice electrician or machinist to quickly gain a measurable level of competence, we expect PhD students to make significant contributions to scientific and technological progress from early on in their candidature (continuing this analogy, PhDs have a “post-doc” period similar to an apprentice’s journeyman years).

A common accusation I received before I learned to explain the significance of my work quickly (and still receive on occasion) is that my chosen field of research is so narrow that it is of no use or interest to anyone else. It is often the case that one scientist’s research can seem so focussed on one objective that it has no impact elsewhere. This is a matter of necessity. We live in such a rich and complicated cosmos that, today, the only way one person is able to make significant progress is to pick a direction and attack it. However, the accusation that their research is of no wider significance fails to take into account that we scientists do not work alone. We work in a team, playing our individual part in a global human effort to understand the world we live in and to improve our quality of life. No science exists in isolation, and each narrow field of research contributes to the growing expanse of collective human knowledge and progress.

But the accusation of narrowness is false too. The seemingly tight focus of my research is built upon a broad foundation of other skills and knowledge. I view my growing expertise in my field as something resembling a pyramid, with the narrow apex supported by a broad and sturdy base. When I finish my PhD, I will be the world expert in optically-sensed stabilized microwave reference dissemination systems, I will be a world expert in stabilized time and frequency transfer, an expert in microwave and optical transmission, fibre-optics, and radio-telescope engineering, all supported by a strong competence in electronics, computer aided design and simulation, and a variety of fields of physics including wave mechanics and General Relativity.

This only took slightly less effort than the Giza one.

Focused research is supported by a broad background of skills and expertise.

The job of a researcher is to seek answers and improve our understanding of the world we live in, to look forward and drive our progress as a species. Scientific research is the only defence humanity has against threats to our way of life, or even our survival.

The economic argument

I have met many people who, disconcertingly for me, view PhDs as a waste of taxpayers’ money. Indeed, government treasuries are often keen to see proof that their investment in research and in PhDs is not being wasted, or couldn’t be better spent elsewhere. In the United States, Congress has demanded that the National Science Foundation “better articulate the value of grants to the national interest.” Recognizing that failure to communicate the return-on-investment of grants places us at risk of losing government and public support, researchers have challenged themselves to come up with scientific evidence on the impact of government investment in research. Late last year, a study published in Science demonstrated a significant way in which PhDs (and thus, the government grants that supported them) make an impact on the economy.

The study showed that PhDs disproportionately gained jobs in high-productivity, high-payroll establishments performing research and development, firms that that typically have a much greater economic impact. The study also showed that the majority of PhDs gained jobs close to where they had studied. Together, the evidence shows that PhDs make a substantial contribution to the economy that supported them, and that investment in PhD funding and research grants is well-founded.

More broadly, there is much historical evidence to show that research drives economic growth. Scientific and technological research produces new technology and ideas, that create new products and services, that create new jobs.


PhDs are no less real jobs than a trade apprenticeship. PhD students work hard to contribute not just to the economy, but to increasing knowledge and progress for the benefit of all humanity.

The Wright Stuff

A lesson in innovation from the Wright Brothers

The Australian government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda webpage asserts: “Innovation is at the heart of a strong economy — from IT to healthcare, defence and transport—it keeps us competitive, at the cutting edge, creates jobs and maintains our high standard of living.This recent article from ABC Radio National titled Curiosity, the mother of innovation argues that if we want to stimulate innovation, we need to encourage curiosity. In the article, Peter Macinnis takes his cue from the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”:

“Necessity, or perceived necessity, won’t do as a starting point for improving the world. What we really need is innovation, and that stems from curiosity, making it the mother of innovation, while serendipity is the midwife and necessity is a mere passing commentator. The message for me as an educator is that if we want innovation to go on into the future, far past my lifetime, we need to ensure that the next generation acquires a strong streak of curiosity.”

The piece is very good and I recommend that you listen to the whole thing, but while I was listening to it, a particularly famous story of innovation and invention came to mind.

As an aviation nerd, I am more familiar with the story of the Wright Brothers than the average person, and I know more of the details of their flying experiments. Popular culture, or at least what I watched and read as kid, often spins the story of the Wright Brothers as a pair of genius inventors who secreted themselves away in their workshop, away from outside influence, applied their brilliance, and emerged with a working flying machine they had invented from scratch. This is patently wrong. I am not disputing that Wilbur and Orville Wright were two of the most influential geniuses of the 20th century, but they were not great inventors, they were brilliant innovators.

The Wright Brothers did not work without external influence and their aeroplane was not composed mostly of their original ideas. Like all great scientists, the Wright Brothers stood on the shoulders of those who came before them, and innovated, adding their own ideas and methods to a science and technology that was already more advanced than the usual stories give credit to.

In the 1890s the goal of powered, heavier-than-air flight was within reach. Sir George Cayley had pinned down the theory of the aeroplane and by 1853 had successfully flown the first manned glider, the cambered aerofoil (aeroplane wing shape) had been developed by both Cayley and Australian engineer Lawrence Hargrave, Samuel Langley had successfully flown some large, steam-powered model aeroplanes, and Octave Chanute had developed an extremely successful biplane hang glider. The Wright Brothers had been keenly following the exploits of the German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal and believed that a successful aeroplane was only a few years away. They had been interested in flying since their father brought home a rubber-power toy helicopter made of paper, bamboo and cork, which the young Wrights played with until it broke, and then built their own.

I can see my house from up here.

The Wrights were fans of German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal.

In 1896, Lilienthal was killed when he lost control of his glider. The Wright Brothers were inspired to begin their own work in aviation, and drew on the work of all of these pioneers, an influence that the Brothers always acknowledged. The Brothers based the structure of their gliders and eventual aeroplane on the biplane design of Chanute, they understood the work of Cayley and Hargrave and used published aerofoil research to design their glider’s wings, and they decided to adopt the development process employed by Lilienthal, which was to master gliding flight before moving on to powered machines.

Strap canvas and bamboo to your back and jump of a cliff.

Chanute’s Pratt truss structure bi-plane was the basis of the structure of the Wright Flyer.

The Wright Brothers believed that wings, engines, and airframes were sufficiently advanced and that authoritative control was the final remaining hurdle in developing a successful aeroplane. Lilienthal, Chanute, and other glider pioneers controlled their gliders by shifting their weight. The Wright Brothers believed that this did not provide sufficient authority and developed the 3-axis method of control still used on all aeroplanes today. They built kites and gliders with elevator, rudder, and a wing-warping system that controlled lateral roll. Over successive glider flights the Brothers improved and added to their control system. The 3-axis control is often cited as the Brothers’ greatest contribution to aviation.

High as a kite...

The kite the Wrights used to test their wing-warping control system.

The Wrights’ early gliders produced less lift than they had calculated and so they began testing aerofoils to trace the root of the problem. They attached model wings and metal plates to a balance mounted on a bicycle and pedalled hard to create an airflow over the apparatus, allowing them to measure the lift of the model wing. They later, famously, built a small wind tunnel in which they tested a variety of aerofoils. From this they learned that the cause of the smaller than expected lift of their early gliders was inaccuracies in the published lift information they had been using. The Wrights tested around 200 aerofoils, selecting shapes that improved the lift-to-drag ratio of their wings, and produced a better glider.

Easier than the bicycle.

The wind tunnel the Wrights built to test wing sections.

By 1902 the Wrights were satisfied with their glider experiments and believed they were ready to attempt a powered flight. At this point they encountered more hurdles. The Brothers found that there was very little data on either air or marine propellers and they were unable to find enough information to give them a good starting point in designing a suitable propeller. They returned to their wind tunnel experiments and produced a remarkably efficient propeller. Next, they enlisted the help of their bicycle shop mechanic to build an engine, because they were unable to purchase a sufficiently light-weight unit. They combined all of their experience and innovation in the optimistically named Flyer.

Come and get me Orville!

The Wrights’ 1902 glider was an efficient and controllable flying machine.

The rest, as they say, is history. On 17th December 1903, the Wrights made the first successful aeroplane flight, and age of the aeroplane began.

The Wright Brothers’ efforts and methods provide us with an exciting and influential lesson in innovation. They did not create their Flyer in a technological vacuum, and it was by adding their own ideas and developments to those of others that allowed them to succeed. Articles and photographs of dramatic glides by Lilienthal, as well as a much-used toy helicopter from childhood, piqued the Wrights’ curiosity about aviation, and it was this curiosity that provided them with the drive to research, build, and innovate, and create the world’s first aeroplane. Curiosity will always be the greatest driver of innovation and technological progress, and we should be encouraging it wherever we can.

A flight of 37 metres.

December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer makes its first flight.