12 Reasons Why the Wright Brothers Invented the Airplane.
by David Garrigus
Why was it that two guys in a bicycle shop invent the airplane and not the world’s leading scientists and engineers? After years of research and interviews with top experts, twelve reasons stand out. These same “founder characteristics” can be attributed to the most successful tech startups of recent years (Google, Facebook, GoPro, Alibaba…). For aspiring entrepreneurs with their own big ideas, it is valuable to examine Wilbur and Orville’s success story.
The Wright Brothers were not just geniuses. Likewise, they were not just in the right place at the right time. The Wright Brothers were driven by twelve basic principles for success:
1. Recognize a unique opportunity that you can exploit. At the age of 29 and still living in his father’s house, Wilbur Wright felt that his life was floundering. But when the most-promising airplane experimenter at the time, Otto Lilienthal, died, Wilbur recognized that a void had opened up in aeronautical research. Wilbur saw Lilienthal’s death as an opportunity to make his own contribution to the field.
2. Do extensive research on what has already been done. Wilbur wrote the Smithsonian Institution, “I wish to obtain such papers as the Institution has published on this subject, and if possible, a list of other works in print...” He read everything he could find on the subject before doing anything about it himself.
3. Identify the right problem before coming up with the right solution. Other experimenters had done extensive work on basic wing design and surfaces that generated lift. Renowned scientists like Samuel Langley were hard at work at developing light and powerful airplane engines. Wilbur correctly identified that balance and control were the essential elements needed to keep an airplane up in the sky. Once Wilbur hit upon the right problem, his solution—his big idea—came to him while fiddling around with an empty tire tube box.
4. Start small and test every incremental change. Wilbur didn’t start his experiments by trying to build an airplane. Instead, he built a little kite (perhaps several kites) to test his idea. At every stage of their experiments from kites, to gliders, and to powered machines, the Wrights attempted to make and test only one change at a time. When they didn’t follow this rule with their 1901 glider, their experiments nearly came to an end.
5. Share your dream. Don’t turn away help. Share the credit. Orville followed Wilbur to Kitty Hawk their first season in 1900 and merely assisted Wilbur with his experiments. Wilbur had already done much of the foundational work toward the invention of the airplane but, from then on, Wilbur shared credit with his brother 50/50. Wilbur likely would not have succeeded without this partnership.
6. Keep excellent records. Stay organized. The Wrights took hundreds of pictures of their experiments and they measured everything. They recorded all their data in a series of notebooks. Most of their “inventing” did not take place at Kitty Hawk. Rather, they spent most of their time in the back room of their bicycle shop back in Dayton, Ohio, where they designed and tested parts. Their detailed records allowed them to know with certainty what actually worked and what didn’t before building their flying machines.
7. Realize that it is always more difficult than you imagined. Orville and Wilbur ran into difficulties and setbacks at every step of the process but they truly enjoyed what they were doing. If you are not finding satisfaction, happiness, and joy in the pursuit of your dream, you are probably not following a true passion. At the darkest hour, passion for your project may be the only thing remaining that will sustain you.
8. Devastating mistakes are merely new foundations from which to build. Setbacks should always redirect you to a better path. The troubling calamities of the Wrights’ second season of experiments at Kitty Hawk caused them to give pause. They no longer trusted the data published by other experimenters so they changed course. They built a small wind tunnel in the back room of their bicycle shop and tested everything for themselves.
9. Do it yourself whenever you can. There are often unforeseen benefits that result from doing it yourself—critical insights you might have missed if others had done the work. After only three years of hands-on experience, often improvising parts from their bike business, the Wrights became the foremost aeronautical inventors—leaping far ahead of all other scientists and engineers in the field. The Wrights managed to conduct their experiments for about $1,000 compared to more than $50,000 spent by Samuel Langley.
10. Don’t give up until you have found your big idea to be wrong. Throughout years of setbacks and missteps, the Wrights never lost sight of their initial big idea that Wilbur first tested by building a little kite—the innovation he called wing warping. It was the very same idea that the Wrights later patented and sold to the world.
11. Pay attention to the competition but only let it motivate you. Don’t let the competition’s press releases distract you from what your findings have shown you to be true. The Wrights did not underestimate their competition. They kept an eye on Samuel Langley and his highly-publicized flying experiments. There was a race to be the first to fly and the Wrights were sprinting with their trials late in 1903. If not for the competition, the Wrights would have likely put off their historic first flight until the following year.
12. Managing success can be more difficult than getting there. The Wrights attempted to introduce their invention to the world without losing control of it. As a result, Wilbur spent much of his time in courthouses defending the Wright patents. (Keeping excellent records early on becomes even more important when defending patent claims later.) All too often, successful inventors are ill-equipped at building businesses, which requires a different skill set. The stress and hardship of defending the Wrights’ airplane patents contributed to Wilbur’s death at the age of only 45.