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.