Crawl, walk, fly
From 1903 Flyer to NCC 1701
Kitty Hawk, NC, is an aviation shrine. It was the scene of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first powered flight in 1903.
It has been an inspiration for generations of inventors, engineers, pilots, astronauts and writers such as Star Trek’s Gene Rodenberry.
That first flight was the culmination of three years of intensive R&D by the two brothers, between the then remote Outer Banks location and their bicycle shop in Dayton, OH.
The Kitty Hawk location was chosen for its combination of high winds, soft sands and relative privacy.
A piece of the 1903 Flyer’s wing fabric was later carried to the moon and back by another Ohio native, Neil Armstrong, in Apollo 11.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
The Smithsonian carefully describes the 1903 Flyer flight as "the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard".
That such a clumsy phrase is needed illustrates a truth in innovation – there are many groups around the world chasing the same goals, with the same inspirations and knowledge bases.
Many can legitimately claim firsts in various categories and sub categories from different approaches and cannot simply be dismissed as “me too” or “fast followers”.
The Wright’s themselves began by searching out existing information from the Smithsonian, the Weather Bureau, and aviation pioneers around the world, just as modern innovators search out information from peers, analysts, specialized events, journals and the web.
At the time, the Smithsonian was no impartial outside observer, itself in receipt of DoD-funding for aviation research in competition with the Wrights.
The situation is analogous today, where web information can be little more than advertorial and analysts’ framing is shaped by its vendor relationships as much as the marketplace itself.
The problem of practical flight rather than demonstrations consists of three areas – lift, power and control - all of which are required.
In 1900, progress had been made in all three areas but no one had successfully put them altogether.
The wing was known for lift, there were powered model planes, and 2 of the 3 modern control surfaces - the rudder and the elevator – were known (think of movement around the X, Y and Z axes).
The Wright’s R&D followed the classic crawl-walk-run progression, from tests on kites, to gliders, to generations of flyers.
Highlights of their innovations for the missing steps in the path to practical flight include:
- Introducing wing warping as the missing 3rd control surface, a forerunner of modern ailerons
- Building a wind tunnel to generate accurate data for efficient design
- Understanding the propeller as a kind of wing rather than as a marine screw
- Building an aluminum motor with high power and low weight, something COTS vendors were not willing, or able to share
- Refining methods for controlled flight using wing warping, the elevator and rudder together
The Wright’s were uniquely gifted with
- The skills, tools, time and money to invest in R&D, without partners or funding from government, academia, or sponsors
- The mindset to persevere in an endeavor where 99% success was still crashing, the common attitude was “man was not meant to fly” and competitors were seemingly better appreciated in the press, funded and qualified
The next phase of the Wright’s career is much less well known.
- They gained enormous press but also fueled competitors with teams better able to build on their innovations
- After initial missteps, they sought professional advice around patents, which later assured their wealth
- They turned to the US Government to fund further development, leading to the establishment of the College Park Airport, MD, as part of trials around Washington, DC
- WWI massively expanded the market for airplanes, making it big business
- The Wright’s withdrew from the scaling market, worn down by their single-handed struggles for funding, patent battles and the different skillset needed to grow large businesses
What can we learn
Dream big but realize that even engineering genius can benefit from expertise and experience in other “swim lanes” such as sales, marketing, finance and legal.
Startups and emerging technology is a different business from the business administration of mature products in mature markets.
Companies used to grow and IPO but many more are acquired for their IP, with their founders and backers able to go on and fund more R&D as serial entrepreneurs, or rest on their laurels.
Industry leaders from eBay, to Google, Microsoft and Apple bought in outside technology to kickstart some of their most well-known products from PayPal, to Earth, Android, Windows, Word, Skype, Mac OSX and iTunes from smaller companies.
Perhaps most famously, Cisco tried to formalize this approach with so-called spin-ins.
Simon is a FAA registered pilot and recently made the pilgrimage to Kitty Hawk.
202 is a boutique enterprise software sales consultancy for startups and mature IT companies, focusing on product launches and growth hacking. 202 was founded in late 2014 by industry veterans Peter Laitin and Simon Hartley, together with decades of expertise and successful experience in cybersecurity, mobility and IoT sales hunting, marketing and product management. 202 specializes in emerging technology and early markets such as government, healthcare, finance and automotive. Customers include RunSafe Security, Kaprica Security, Spectrum Comm and others. 202 is headquartered just outside Washington, DC, in North Bethesda, MD. Learn more at 202partnersllc.com.
First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.
John T. Daniels - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs di