The Power of Experimenting for Technology Development

The Wright Brothers First Flight

“Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.”

[Lord Kelvin, President Royal Society, 1885]

On a winter day in 1903, in a remote spot called Kitty Hawk the Wright Brothers were the first to fly a motor-powered airplane. It had taken them four years to get there. They also understood how much they still needed to do, learn, and experiment.

By pursuing their act of curiosity, the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio changed aviation history. 

In The Wright Brothers, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner historian David McCullough tells the surprising story of Wilbur and Orville Wright. The brothers had exceptional courage and determination, broad intellectual interests and enormous curiosity, much of which they attributed to growing up in a home filled with books by their father, a Bishop.

Their determined personalities and the support of their sister Katharine and family kept them going through their efforts to get funding, improve their designs, and tell the world what they were working on. McCullough emphasizes the mechanical skill and research of the two, which led the brothers to tinkering, first with bicycles, then with airplanes. He says:

“Years later, a friend told Orville that he and his brother would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantages could advance in the world. ‘But it isn’t true,’ Orville responded emphatically, ‘to say we had no special advantages . . . the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.’ ”

The brothers gained the necessary financial support from the French, who were more willing and enthusiastic about the idea of flight than their American contemporaries. Wilbur traveled to France to secure funding from individuals and the government and make experimental flights.

In August 1908, Wilbur flew for the first time in front of a skeptical audience at Le Mans. Of the event, Le Figaro declared, “It was not merely a success, but a triumph… a decisive victory for aviation, the news of which will revolutionize scientific circles throughout the world.”

Le Matin wrote:

The mystery which seemed inextricable and inexplicable is now cleared away. Wright flew with an ease and facility such that one cannot doubt those enigmatic experiments that took place in America; o more than one can doubt that this man is capable of remaining an hour in the air. It is the most extraordinary vision of a flaying machine than we have seen…

It was only when France demonstrated its interest that America took Wilbur Wright seriously. Which helped them secure army contracts and test more advanced designs.

Wilbur and Orville were superb engineers. Their skill was to find by trial and error that the existing data held by the science of aeronautics was flawed even though its principles were generally correct. They zeroed in on weight, power, control, lift, and the propeller as the main technologies that had to be solved. Fro example, one of their main innovations was the development of the wind tunnel, which had been invented thirty years prior, into a precise quantitative instrument. 

The Wright brothers had insight into, and a reverence for, quantitative empirical data that was unique in aeronautical engineering at that time. They were pragmatists and seekers of the truth, but they had no intention of building a business.

Wilbur and Orville were more interested in experimenting to figure out how to fly than in creating industrial empire like Ford, Edison, or their Dayton neighbors John and Frank Patterson with the National Cash Register. Their triumphs thus came with a burden.

In 1911, Wilbur, who McCullough describes as alert, patient, and closely attentive during the wrecking negotiations and competitive environment he faced during his sojourn in France, wrote:

“When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time [fighting patent infringement suits] to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.”

Two technical discoveries that made flight go from fantasy to reality are worth noting: 1./ twisting the wings in opposite directions allowed the plane to rotate about its roll axis so it could make sharp turns and compensate for side winds; 2./ by building a wind tunnel and measuring the lift of various airfoil shapes, the Wright brothers discovered the optimum shape for the wing cross-section.

Much work and preparation went into the European trips, the meetings and discussions. Although they were much more interested in technical explanations and practical trial and error, the brothers had to put effort into fighting lawsuits. The eight-year patent conflict with Glenn Curtiss, for example, tied up airplane development in the USA while the Europeans were moving ahead quickly with design improvements.

The content of the lawsuit involved an alternate airplane design Alexander Graham Bell developed with Glen Curtiss that got around the Wright patent —instead of twisting the wings to achieve roll control, they used flaps on the wing tips, similar to the method used today.

Once the technical hurdle of figuring out how to do something is cleared, we can typically improve on the original vision. But it often takes years of experimenting and determined effort to take that first leap.


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