For succeeding with the Airplane invention, Wright Brothers significantly benefited from the scientific knowledge creation, design of gliders, and experimental data of others. It began with the invention of the kite by Chinese philosophers in 500 BC. The invention of the box kite by Lawrence Hargrave in 1893 and the discovery of Bernoulli’s principle in 1783 were stepping stones. Besides, George Cayley’s clarification of the four aerodynamic forces acting upon flight – lift, gravity, thrust, and drag—was crucial. Furthermore, propeller design dating back to 200 BC was constructive.
We have endless urgency of having ideas for Getting jobs done better. But the urgency is not enough. We need sufficient knowledge to generate ideas. Ideas flow once we feed knowledge and urgency to get jobs done better to our creative process. This is an inherent unique ability of humans. However, the quality and scalability of ideas depend on the continued knowledge generation. Otherwise, irrespective of greatness, ideas get stunt.
Airplane invention began with the idea of kite:
Although human beings had a strong desire to fly like birds, they could not invent means due to a lack of knowledge. Hence, knowledge gathering began. It led to generating ideas for inventing the kite by Chinese who flew kites for the first time somewhere around 500 BC. Although kite flying ideas require the application of fundamental laws of aerodynamics phenomenon, perhaps, Chinese philosopher Mozi and Lu Ban (kite inventors) did not acquire it as scientific knowledge. Possibly, an intuitive form of understanding gained through observation and trial error experimentation formed the basis of kite invention. Hence, that knowledge was insufficient to scale up the kite idea into the invention of controlled flying machines—airplanes.
Nevertheless, the subsequent advancement of the kite idea led to the invention of the box kite. In an attempt to develop his own manned flying machine, the Australian inventor Lawrence Hargrave invented it in 1893. Although in his experimentation with box kites, Mr. Hargrave succeeded in lifting himself just 16 feet above the ground, designers of most of the early aircraft of the Twentieth Century got inspiration from it.
Deeping scientific knowledge underpinning airplane invention:
In 1738, a Dutch-Swiss mathematician discovered an important aerodynamic principle– Bernoulli’s principle. It explains the aerodynamics principle in kite flying. Air flowing over a kite’s wing makes air pressure above the wing lower than below, giving the kite lift. After almost 60 years, George Cayley clarified the four aerodynamic forces acting upon flight – lift, gravity, thrust, and drag. In 1799, Sir George Cayley got recognition for formally identifying the four aerodynamic forces acting upon flight – lift, gravity, thrust, and drag. His findings led to the improvement of the design of gliders. Perhaps, in 1853, Cayley himself built a glider for his grandson to pilot.
Perhaps, the first version of propeller design dated back to 200 BC. Ancient Greek scientist Archimedes developed it using the screw concept. Ancient civilizations used them to lift water from wells with much less effort. Leonardo da Vinci reimagined the screw concept in sketches of his flying helicopter in the mid-1400s. In the mid-1700s, this design concept became widely available as a means to propel boats and ships through the water.
After the hot-air balloon flight in 1783, Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier envisioned an airship driven by three hand-cranked propellers. Subsequently, in 1852, Jules Henri Giffard invented the first full-size powered airship, which used a three-bladed propeller. A 3-horsepower steam engine was rotating the propeller. Alberto Santos-Dumont used large wooden propeller to power his aluminum airships in 1873.
With success in bicycle repairing and manufacturing, Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, started pursuing their interest in flying machines in the early 1890s. However, Wright Brothers had to fine-tune it further for their experimentation of developing flying machines. Based on wind tunnel data, Wright Brothers changed the propeller design. Due to the finding that the relative angle of attack of the propeller had to be different along the propeller blade, they twisted propellers slightly.
Inventions of Wright Brothers’ flight control technique:
The Wright brothers emphasized balance and control with the given background as bicycle makers, where balance was essential. They firmly believed that the ability to fly depended upon balance and control. It was far more critical than the power of an engine to propel the airplane forward. Particularly, many deaths of aeronauts in gliding and balloon accidents compelled them to focus on the control in the air as an essential issue. They developed a firm conviction that due to weakness in control, enough knowledge about wings and engines was insufficient in developing powered flight. They figured out that previous control methods, like redistributing body weight, were highly flawed.
In their endeavor to develop a better flight control technique, they made an important observation on the birds’ approach. The birds change direction in flight by adjusting their angle at the end of the wings. It makes their bodies roll to the left or right. They felt imitation of this technique would be helpful for an aircraft to change direction. Hence, they imagined the use of a moveable airfoil on the sides of the wing for changing the wing tilt.
Wright Brothers’ experimentations leading to Airplane Invention:
With some modifications of the design of the Chanute-Herring glider, they started experimenting, in 1901, in North Carolina. These were unmanned glider tests to study glide characteristics. By enlarging the wings for increasing lift, they went into the second round of experimentation, comprising approximately 100 flights flying at varying distances from 50 to 400 feet. Unfortunately, test data were disappointing for them. They figured out that the equation that Lilienthal had been using to calculate lift was incorrect. Experimentation with bicycles led to several modifications, like changing the value of a constant in the lift equation from 0.0054 to 0.0033. Further investigation in wind tunnels made crucial discoveries such as longer and narrower wings would provide a better lift to drag ratio than broader wings. These findings led to reducing the camber of airfoils which made them more efficient for banking and discarded Lilienthal’s calculations.
Over the next three years, until 1904, they kept improving their knowledge, fine-tuning their ideas, redesigning their flying machines, and learning from experimentation. One notable advancement was the three-axis control for the glider, a significant Breakthrough for controlled flight. Its adoption in the design made aircraft very controllable in flight, making some aeronautical historians believe that this is where the airplane was really invented. All these learnings culminated in the design and construction of Wright Flyer I.
Subsequently, on 17th December 1903, the brothers finally got the airplane off the ground with a flight distance of 120 feet. Learning from the experimentations of Flyer I led to the second aircraft, the Wright Flyer II. In 1904, they made many flights with this flyer at Dayton with many hard landings and minor mishaps. Despite the demonstrated progress with longer flights lasting a few minutes, the airplane was still very difficult to control.
Airplane invention as Wright Brothers’ controlled flight unfolded in 1905:
Learning and experimentation over 15 years have needed up, in 1905, controlling pitch, roll, and yaw separately of each other. Despite such advancement, Wilbur and Orville experienced a nearly fatal crash with the brothers’ flyer. Hence, they rebuilt the flyer with a much larger rudder to have much easier control. They also placed the forward elevator further away from the wings. Subsequently, Wilbur and Orville Wright became national heroes upon demonstrating their design with better control in several flights with their powered flying machine.
They believed in having an invention with practical Utility that they could sell. Hence, upon getting a patent in 1906, they were in Europe in 1907 in a selling mission of their airplane. The success of signing contracts with a French company and the US Army in early 1908 led to the beginning of the commercialization of this great invention. Like many other great inventions, the airplane kept improving through a flow of additional ideas expanding the market, creating jobs, forming firms, and building industries.
However, court cases challenging the Wright Brothers’ patent for a number of years prevented brothers from further developing new aircraft designs. As a result, by 1911, new European designs arrived, considered superior to Wright airplanes.
Lessons from Airplane invention:
Similar to many other great inventions, like the cellphone or the telephone, airplane inventions also emerged in a primitive form. But unlike other inventions, the failure of this primitive device used to injure and kill people. For example, due to the death of several team members, the brothers’ exhibition team was disbanded. Safety issues arising from airplane accidents and deaths led to the sale of Orville Wright Company by Orville in 1915. Nevertheless, like many other great inventions, the Airplane invention got a boost due to its role airfield for reconnaissance, fighter, and bomber.
Creativity out of tinkering and Craftsmanship is not good enough. But their roles in forming initial ideas are indispensable. But to fine-tune and scale them up, there is a need for a flow of scientific knowledge. Furthermore, Passion for Perfection is at the core of driving knowledge creation and idea generation. Hence, inventors must keep pursuing the journey, often continuing previous inventors. Creating a flywheel or cumulative effect from incremental advancements is a must. As inventions, invariably, arise in crude form, the engagement of the inventors in the entrepreneurial journey is vital for further refinement. Simple access to patents and design is not good enough for non-inventor entrepreneurs to take it forward, as it lacks the passion and Tacit capability of the inventors. Such reality turns technology transfer into a myth.
Besides, often, the role of military or Government agencies as the early adopter of primitive emergence of the invention is vital to support further development for reaching the civilian market. Like kite invention, many inventions of the preindustrial age have seeded the advancement of modern society.