Wednesday, 18 December 2013

What made the Wright brothers successful



I needed a little inspiration in the challenges of being an entrepreneur and inventor. I just checked out the Wright Brothers because at the time they pioneered human flight there were hundreds of others trying to do just the same. I wanted to understand how long it took them. What kinds of things they did. How much detail they went into and what they focused on.

What I already knew is that many incredibly wealthy and well connected entrepreneurs were also trying but didn't get the results. I wanted to understand why. Was it a fluke or was it down to process. Were the Wright Brothers better inventors, or was their relative lack of resource beneficial to them in some way. It would be a nice story it if it were.

What I learned so far was that they did the basic thing good engineers do. Tested, prototyped, gather thorough data. They also didn't do everything themselves and it was their choices and way of thinking that led to success.

Many others were building stronger engines and propellers. The Wright Brothers focussed on controls. What I feel that means is that others focused on quantity e.g. power and lift while the Wright brothers focused on quality or controlling the power. This explains why their first official flying craft didn't actually do much. It only went a meter or so in the air and sustained that for a short distance.

They didn't care about height or speed at first. Just in level controlled flight. They conducted many glider tests before hand and developed their mechanical skills so they could develop what they needed. Along the way they built a business making bicycles because it helped them pursue their love of flying.

Essentially I feel it is their holistic approach to invention. Seeing that others could deliver the required power but they couldn't control it. The limitation was therefore control not power and that's what they perfected.

They also investigated how birds fly. Learning how they adjusted their wings to tilt their bodies and turn. Many engineers believed a plane should stay level and used the principles of a train on a track. In the end we have learnt that the best solution is a mix between a bird and a large fish like a dolphin. The wings may be inherently unstable but less susceptible to upset by gusty cross winds. Tilting the plane to aid vertical and horizontal movement uses the plane itself to aid the process. Providing a much greater force with relatively little effort. Leaving the control planes in the tail for finer control they don't have to focus on providing lift itself. Instead, they just control where the nose of the plane points.

This is very similar to a formula one car. just the reverse idea. In a Formula One car the wheels control power and direction. The rear wheels are only concerned with power. The front are only concerned with control. All wheel drive is best for rallies and dirt tracks not racing on tarmac where the separation of control and power is key.

So it is essentially a similar principle. The Wright brothers used gliding to teach them about control and leaving motor driven flight until later. They followed others attempts that used more power and different styles of craft but stuck to their original idea that the pilot must be in full control before power be added.. Everything must be designed around this concept.

They also believed that the basic wings and engines required already existed. They learnt to fly unpowered craft first. Others just put engines and untried controls together and tried them out without learning to fly unpowered first. They often crashed.

The brothers experience with bicycles also benefited them because they knew from experience that leaning to help steer and control a bike is the most natural thing. With open minds like this they could see how common this approach was in the natural world.

Overall this process reminds me of Darwin. He felt that much of the knowledge was already there. He did many tests himself and compiled many statistics but clearly built his ideas on the foundation of others work. He felt there needed to be a complete story but the essential ingredients were already in place.

Throughout the analysis of the Wright Brothers work it is clear how much they learned from others. Putting it together and seeing the whole was most important. They don't claim to have many original ideas except how they put the overall control surfaces together.

Essentially they built a powered glider. Thus building on decades of proven knowledge ensuring that if the engine failed the pilot could still land safely assuming he knew how to glide. It also ensured that any one who knew how to glide could learn how to control a powered glider. The simplicity is a big part of their success.

It was fascinating to learn so much. The workflow sounds so similar to other entrepreneurs that have had success. I'm thinking of Apple among many others. Good to know.
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