I want you to just imagine it.
No one had flown.
In the millions of years of human history.
And hundreds had tried.
Many were trying at this very moment. And neither the geniuses of history nor the titanic governments and corporations of modernity had achieved it.
And here you were, lying face down on a machine that you, and your brother, and your friend Charlie, had built with your bare hands.
And you were flying.
You were flying.
You were alone on top of the world. A one of one. Experiencing something that no one else in the history of mankind could say that they had experienced.
Imagine the euphoria. Both from the physical sensation of flying, and from knowing that you, YOU had done the impossible.
The flight only lasted for twenty seconds.
And then Orville Wright crashed somewhat roughly into the North Carolina sand.
The flyer was a bit mangled, but nothing that they couldn’t repair in a few days.
The Wright brothers had tried to invite the locals, but only a few were interested.
Afterwards, they tried to tell the newspapers, but no one believed them.
And so, as Orville and Wilbur Wright took the train home to Dayton, they were something like a secret society. They talked in conspiratorial tones about what the future held. What improvements they would make and what new tests they would conduct.
The world might not know, might not believe. But the brothers knew. And as they rode that train, their minds turned again and again to that secret that only they knew. MAN COULD FLY.
*** Train Noises for 20-30 seconds ***
*** Intro Music ***
HELLO and welcome to How to Take Over the World. This is Ben Wilson. Today’s episode is about the Wright Brothers. Wilbur and Orville Wright, the fathers of flight. They were the first men to fly and the inventors of the airplane.
It’s truly one of the great stories of innovation. There is a quote that you might have heard “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
And this is sort of the technology side of that. Never doubt that a couple of young men in their garage can move technology forward, indeed it is the only thing that has.
And I love that about this story. It’s two committed hard-working guys with no backing and no connections against the world. No one thought they could do it.
I closed this book after finishing it, and there are few books that have left me with such a strong conviction that anything is possible with enough determined effort. I hope this episode leaves you with the same feeling.
My main source for this episode is the excellent biography Wright Brothers by David McCullough. If you’d like to purchase it, use the link in the show notes and you’ll be supporting the show.
And just a reminder before we get into the story that I will be releasing an endnotes episode for this story as well and if you would like to hear that episode, go to the link in the show notes and subscribe to How to Take Over the World premium where you will get all of my endnotes episodes, all future AMA episodes, and all future bonus episodes and mini-episodes.
So with that out of the way, let’s dive in, after this quick break.
*** AD BREAK ***
It all began with a toy. Milton Wright was a Bishop, a fairly high ranking clergyman for the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.He traveled often for work, and often brought back gifts for his children.And this time, he brought back a small helicopterYou wound the rubber band and let it go and the little wooden propellers carried it through the air“Look here, boys,” said the bishop, concealing it in his hands. When he let go, it flew to the ceiling.”Later, when Orville was in first grade, his teacher caught him tinkering with bits of wood at his desk. She asked him what he was doing, and he told her he was building a machine that he and his brother would fly someday.By his brother, he meant Wilbur. They had two older brothers and a sister, but Wilbur and Orville were inseparable. They acted similarly, thought similarly, and always did things together. Their father called them “As inseparable as twins” and “indispensable to one another.” Though born four years apart, they were indeed like twins. Throughout their life they would work together, live together, and in later years even maintain a joint bank account.They were close with the rest of their family too. It was a tight knit group.They would call Dayton, Ohio home for their entire lives.Willbur was later to say “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might Succeed in life. I would say to him pick out a good father and mother and begin life in Ohio.”It reminds me of a speaking engagement I did last year in front of a bunch of successful entrepreneurs and I did a panel and the MC asked us what the hardest lesson was that we learned from our fathers and the first person said “Don’t do cocaine” because his father had been a coke head. And then all of these people talked about how their horrible fathers had spurred them to success in life because they wanted to prove them wrong or escape their shadow or something like that.And I was just thinking man, am I at a disadvantage in life because I had a loving father and mother?So it’s nice to see from the Wright Brothers that you can have success even if you have a supportive and loving family.Wilbur was born in 1867 and Orville was born in 1871. So they are growing up at an interesting time. They grew up in the era of horses and buggies, saw early automobiles when they were young men, and then Orville, the younger of the two lived to see supersonic flight and if he had lived to 98 would have lived to see the moon landing.Which is always amazing to me to think about. For thousands of years humans got around on foot or on horses. And then in a single lifetime we went from horses to moon landings.Anyway, the point is, the Wright brothers grew up without running water, plumbing, or electricity. Nevertheless, it was a good middle class upbringing in a booming manufacturing town.Their father was intellectually curious, he had a larger than normal library and encouraged his sons to read and experiment.Of the two, Orville was the more entrepreneurial. He began making kites at age 10 for fun and then started to sell them. And then while in high school he got an enthusiasm for newspapers and he used scrap metal and discarded materials, including an unused tombstone, to make a homemade printing press.Wilbur of course eventually joined the printing business and they started their own newspaper business which did modestly well.Wilbur was the more serious and intellectual of the two. In fact while they were both brilliant, Wilbur is the one who you might say is a genius.He was a classic shy, lost in the clouds, thinker of a boy.McCullough "Such were Wilbur's powers of concentration that to some he seemed a little strange. He could cut himself off from everyone.”A classmate said “The strongest impression one gets of Wilbur Wright is of a man who lives largely in a world of his own.”He said it was common to see him leave the house, only to return five minutes later because he had forgotten his hat.And I said thinker and not nerd because Wilbur excelled at everything. If you look at a picture of him, he doesn’t look like a nerd, he’s got a pretty impressive jaw and indeed he was a star athlete, especially at football, skating, and gymnastics.In fact, there was serious talk of him going to Yale. But then in 1885 when he is 18 years old he is playing hockey on a frozen lake when a neighborhood thug wacks him in the face with a hockey stick.It knocks out his front teeth, in retrospect it’s pretty clear that he had a pretty severe concussion, and that sends him into a downward spiral of depression that lasts for years.For the next three years he is more or less homebound as he regains his confidence after this traumatic assault.It’s also probably worsened by the fact that during this time, his mom contracts tuberculosis and so he spends most of his time at home caring for his mother.Other than taking care of his mother, the other thing that consumes him is reading. MucCullough says of the Wright household "Everyone in the house read all the time."The Bishop kept an unusually large library for the time, and it included Dickens, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, a complete set of the works of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Virgil, Plutarch's Lives, Milton's Paradise Lost, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Thucydides, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, plus two full sets of encyclopedias and more.And being widely read is something that would come back to benefit Wilbur greatly.Well Mrs. Wright dies in 1889, and this is a very serious hardship on the family. But paradoxically it seems to set Wilbur free, as he had fixated on her in her illness and really didn’t pursue any sort of career or vocation while she was sick.But without needing to care for his bed-ridden mother, Wilbur could close the book on the recluse chapter of his life and move forward with the printing business, and then with a new obsession which he and Orville would discover four years later in 1893.
*** SOUND EFFECT OF A RINGING BELL AND SOME EXCITING MUSIC ***
In the 1890s, bicycle-mania hit the United States. The 1870s and 1880s had seen a number of novelty bikes for enthusiasts, so think of those bicycles with the one huge wheel and the one tiny wheel. But in the late 1880s and especially in the early 1890s, the safety bicycle started to take off. And that’s a bicycle as we think of it today, two wheels of roughly the same size and a lower seat so that a person can put their feet on the ground when they’re not riding the bike.
And bicyclemania hits not only Dayton, but the Wright household. Orville is the one who catches the fever. Between the two brothers you can kind of think of Orville as the heart and Wilbur as the brain. Now that is a little unfair because Orville was also very intelligent and Wilbur was also enthusiastic, but of the two, Orville was the more obsessive and Wilbur was the greater genius.
And by the way, there is a lesson there. If you have the passion but not the intelligence to pull of what you want to or the inverse, you know you’re smart or capable but you just aren’t the type to really obsess about a cause, then you need to find someone who complements you.
Well, Orvill was not only passionate but entrepreneurial so in 1893 Wilbur and Orville opened their own small bicycle business, the Wright Cycle Exchange, selling and repairing bicycles only a short walk from their house.
And the brothers were very hard-working, very smart, very honest, and mechanically minded so it’s no surprise that the business takes off.
In virtually no time, business was so good that they had to move down the street into larger quarters.
They do go through some rough times. The bicycle craze goes through the classic hype cycle. The hype cycle is a concept popularized by the research firm Gartner, and it describes five phases of a new technology. First there is the technology trigger. Something gets invented. Then there is the peak of inflated expectations. That is when you see a mania, just blind optimism completely divorced from reality. And then you have a crash ending in what Gartner calls the trough of disillusionment. And then it slopes gently back up with what is called the slope of enlightenment into what is called the plateau of productivity.
You can see this really clearly with the internet. You have a technology trigger in the early 90s, then in the mid to late 90s you have the peak of inflated expectations where every internet startup is getting funded no matter how ridiculous.
And then you have the dot com bust, the recession, what Gartner calls the trough of disillusionment. And then over the next 10 years you have the slope of enlightenment ending at the plateau of productivity. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but people are still using the internet.
Well, bicycles go through this exact process.
There is a craze, and then there is a bust. And the Wright brothers almost go out of business during the bust, during the recession.
But then things recover and reach the plateau of productivity. And that trough is good in a way because it separates the fakers from those who know what they are talking about and are really committed to the craft.
Well the Wrights were really good so they come out on the other side with a great business that thrives. In 1895 they moved once again into a bigger facility and started manufacturing their own bicycles rather than just reselling and repairing.
The advertisement for their first bicycle, the Van Cleve, gives you a peek into their personalities. It reads in part:
It will have large tubing, high frame, tool steel bearings, needle wire spokes, narrow tread and every feature of an up to date bicycle. Its weight will be about 20 pounds. We are very certain that no wheel on the market will run easier or wear longer than this one. And we will guarantee it in the most unqualified manner.
The thing about innovators is they are often not really trying to innovate. Often they are just trying to do everything right. And that describes the Wright Brothers.
It makes me think of the Steve Jobs quote “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
And that pretty well describes the Wrights. They did everything right, they were a yardstick of quality, and they expected excellence.
So their bicycles sell really well, and the business is throwing off some very attractive profits that are making them wealthy. Not mega rich but they are doing very well for themselves. And then in 1896, they have another fortunate accident, one that would set them down the road of their ultimate destiny.
*** SOUND EFFECT ***
Otto Lilenthal loved the idea of flight. Born in Northern Germany, as a boy he studied birds with his brother and together they made strap on wings and attempted to fly with them.
While the wings did not work out, eventually Lilenthal was able to create functional gliders.
He was a brilliant engineer with some important mining patents to his name, but no business or engineering problem intrigued him the way the problem of flight did.
“It is our duty not to rest,” Lilenthal wrote, “until we have attained a perfect scientific conception of the problem of flight.”
He jumped from hills that were 30 and even 50 feet high in order to experiment and improve the engineering of his gliders.
On August 9th, 1896, he made four successful glides, some almost 900 feet in length. By some accounts, his last words before his final jump were “Sacrifices must be made!”
At some point during his descent, Lilenthal’s glider pitched downward and he was unable to pull out of a 50-foot free fall. The crash broke his back and killed him.
At almost the exact same time, on the other side of the world, Orville Wright contracted typhoid. As he lay in bed, weak and delirious with a 105 degree fever, Wilbur resumed the role of caretaker that he had taken with his sick mother.
In particular, Wilbur spent considerable time reading to his brother while he rested in bed.
One day, Wilbur read to him an article about Lilenthal’s death. The fascination with flight that had affected the Wright Brothers as young boys now returned even stronger.
They studied the lives and work of other aviation pioneers, including the French experimenter L.P. Mouillard. (please excuse my pronunciation).
He wrote a book on flight, and in it he warned that one could be entirely overtaken by solving the problem of flight. "When once this idea has invaded the brain, it possesses it exclusively" which certainly proved true for the Wright Brothers.
I think possession is a good way to think about their relationship to flying.
Their first practical strep comes on Tuesday, May 30, 1899, Wilbur writes a letter to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Quote, "I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style of Cayley's and Pennaud's machines, he began. My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable. I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work. To which I expect to devote what time I can spare for my regular business. I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and, if possible, a list of other works in print in the English language. I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine."
And it’s interesting that he specifically addresses the issue of crankery. Flight in the 1890s was sort of like cold fusion today. There are many brilliant people working on it, but there are also a lot of cranks. And most of the time when you hear about cold fusion or practical fusion, it’s either crankery or an exaggeration.
But like I said, there were smart people working on it as well. There was Lilenthal and Mouillard, Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were both working on it.
Hiram Maxim, an American-British inventor, had reportedly spent $100,000 of his own money on a giant steam powered, pilotless flying machine, only to see it crash in attempting to take off. The French government had spent a similar amount on a steam powered flying machine built by a French electrical engineer.
And the head of the Smithsonian, to whom Wilbur had just written, was also working on constructing a flying machine. His name was Samuel Langley.
Well Langley is very helpful, and sends a bunch of information from the Smithsonian, which helps the brothers get started. And this is a really good approach, why recreate the wheel? Or the wings I guess in this case.
Let’s learn what we can from other people’s experiments. And so they get a bunch of data from Langley and from a bunch of other early flyers like Lilenthal, and from this guy Octave Chanute, and others.
They also start gathering data from even more experienced fliers… birds.
*** Birds or seagull sounds ***
Wilbur Wright actually makes a huge breakthrough in flight almost immediately. It’s very impressive. He’s watching birds fly, and he notices that they shorten one wing when they roll one way or another.
And so Wilbur says, what if we were to have a lever that could fold down or twist the very edge of the wing in order to roll the plane one way or another. Wilbur calls it wing warping.
And so they test this with a miniature flier, it’s actually a kite.
Its wingspan is only five feet and it’s made with bamboo and paper.
They send it up in the wind, and test out this wing warping. And wouldn’t you know it, it works. They twist one side up, which exposes more surface area, generating more lift, so one wing lifts and consequently the other one dips, turning the kite to one side in a rolling motion.
Now there is another lesson that the brothers took from the birds, and I think it’s absolutely genius.
They are looking at birds who glide and float on the wind, and realize, look at how often they move their wings. They are constantly making micro adjustments to account for the wind and keep themselves stable.
And so the Wright brothers realize that the primary problem of flight is not propulsion or lift, it is control. Lilenthal, that German flier who died, had demonstrated that gliding on the wind is actually very doable, but controlling yourself once you’re there is very hard - which is ultimately what led to his death.
The brothers also crunch the numbers and realize that in the five years that he was testing gliders, Lilenthal had only spent a grand total of 5 hours in the air.
And so you can see early on they have a very good theory of how to crack the problem of flight.
We have three problems, lift, propulsion, and stability, or in other words wings, engine, and controls. Of the three control is actually the most difficult to solve.
And in order to solve it, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time in the air learning how to pilot an airplane.
It’s a genius approach.
It reminds me a lot of the idea of a minimum viable product. This is a philosophy that is really popular in silicon valley and throughout the business world. And the idea that the best approach to development is not to fully finish a product and then launch it, but to build a minimum viable product, the bare bones, and then test it out and get real world customer feedback and add features and polish as time goes on. That’s the basic idea.
And that’s what the Wright Brothers are going to do. Everyone else, all of their competitors, build these whole flying apparatuses and then unveil them in a big test flight. But the brothers are going to start with the bare bones, and test it in secret. And we’ll hear more about that testing after this quick break.
*** AD BREAK ***
In order to perform the repetitive flights necessary to master flying, the brothers needed to find a place to conduct their test flights. The ideal spot would have strong steady winds and ideally a soft place to land. To find the right place, Wilbur wrote to the United States Weather Bureau in Washington about prevailing winds around the country. The weather bureau provided extensive records of monthly wind velocities at more than one hundred stations.
A village in a remote corner of North Carolina called Kitty Hawk caught his eye. It had very consistent, strong winds and plenty of soft sand to land on.
It was also small and completely isolated. But the brothers didn’t need a luxury vacation.
enough for them to take particular interest in a remote spot on the outer banks of North Carolina called Kitty Hawk, some 700 miles from Dayton. Though the famous Kitty Hawk is now colloquially and widely known as the birthplace of flight, at the time, it was a small, deserted and somewhat treacherous place.
But that’s okay. It’s not a vacation they’re looking for.
Once the location was established, the brothers needed to complete the glider they would use and transport it from Dayton to Kitty Hawk, nearly 700 miles. They built a full size glider with a wingspan of 18 feet, and a cost of $15, which they planned to reassemble at Kitty Hawk.
Kitty Hawk was very remote at the time. No bridge access was available, thus access was only via a ferry or a boat. They end up taking a little skiff that is in such bad shape they have to bail water the entire time to stay afloat.
When the brothers did finally arrive, they found a small village of about 50 houses, nearly all belonging to fishermen.
Wilbur wrote about this first trip to Kitty Hawk: "I have my machine nearly finished. It does not have a motor and is not expected to fly in any true sense of the word. My idea is merely to experiment and practice with a view of solving the problem of equilibrium. I have plans which I hope to find much in advance with the methods tried by previous experimenters. Once a machine is under proper control under all conditions, the motor problem will be quickly solved. A failure of a motor will then mean simply a slow descent and safe landing instead of a disastrous fall."
So that is actually something the brothers thought about a lot, was risk mitigation. Aside from not wanting to die, they realized that Lilenthal had only been in the air for five hours before he died. And so Wilbur says
quote, "the man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positive must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and overconfidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.”
Of course some risks were necessary, and they would have crashes, but they were no daredevils out to perform stunts and they never would be.
So this first summer they are at first flying what is essentially a manned kite. And they’re not flying it very high. They’re just letting the wind lift them about 20 feet off the ground and then trying to control the machine in various ways.
In the first week they spend they take the machine out on three days for 2-4 hours at a time. So within the first week they have spent more time in the air than Lilenthal did in five years. That should tell you how different their approach was from Lilenthal and frankly from everyone else who was more like Lilenthal.
And this whole time, they’re roughing it. First they stay in a spare room of a local, and then they move out into a tent. They subsist on eggs, tomatoes, and hot biscuits which they can get from the locals.
It certainly wasn’t very comfortable but Orville would say that it was the happiest time they had ever known. And you can imagine why. Just you and the boys camping out on the beach and figuring out how to fly. It doesn’t sound too bad.
And when they’re not flying, they are taking flying lessons from the birds. One of the locals John T Daniels later recounted “We couldn't help thinking they were just a pair of poor nuts. They'd stand on the beach for hours at a time just looking at the gulls flying, soaring, dipping.
They would watch them and imitate the movements of their wings with their arms and hands. They could imitate every movement of the wing. We thought they were crazy. But we just had to admire the way they could move their arms this way and that and bend their elbows and wrist bones up and down just like the birds.”
But of course, they are seeing their mechanical work as well, John T. Daniels also wrote that the Wright Brothers were quote “two of the workingest boys, and when they worked, they worked. They had their whole heart and soul in what they were doing.”
So finally toward the end of their trip, which was only about a month long, they do some gliding off of some Sand Dunes at an area called Kill Devil Hills.
The glides go between 300 and 400 feet and reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
Overall it’s a success, they get some valuable data, have a good time, and find out a lot about their current machine and how it can be improved.
And then at the end of October they go back to Dayton to man the bike shop. And this is their routine for the next few years. They spend a couple months in summer or fall in Kitty Hawk, and then return to Dayton to man the bike shop.
The next year in 1901, they return to Kitty Hawk again. This time they are immediately met by a scourge of biblical proportions.
A swarm of mosquitoes so thick it can practically blot out the sun.
Orville said that the agonies of typhoid fever were as nothing compared to the mosquitoes. He said “The sand and grass and trees and hills and everything was fairly covered with them. They chewed us clear through our underwear and socks. Lumps began swelling up all over my body like hen's eggs. We attempted to escape by going to bed, which we did a little after five o'clock. We put our cots out under the awnings and wrapped up in blankets, with only our noses protruding from the folds, thus exposing the least possible surface to attack.
But then he explains that it was so hot that they would get overheated and take off the blankets, but as soon as they did the mosquitoes would swarm and attack and then they would have to retreat under the blankets again. It sounds horrible.
Well luckily for the Wright Brothers, the mosquitoes soon dissipated to more normal levels.
Now the brothers started thinking a little more longterm, and they build a large shed that served as a combination house, workshop, and hangar.
Now, in the off-season of 1900 to 1901, they had spent considerable time looking over the data from Langley and this other guy Chanute, and had modified their glider to fit the best practices laid out by those other flyers.
Well as soon as they start flying in 1901, they realize something is seriously wrong with their glider. And over the course of a few days they come to realize that the data provided to them is useless at best.
These guys just hadn’t spent enough time in the air to truly test what worked best. Specifically, they had altered the curvature of their wings to conform to what Lilienthal, Langley, and Chanute had said worked. And it was just wrong. So they had to spend time fixing the wings to bring the wings closer to what they had started with in 1900.
This was not an easy fix, Kitty Hawk was not an easy place to make these changes, and it was very disspriting to realize that they had gone backwards not forward, in their time between the two trips to Kitty Hawk.
They came close to despair, with Wilbur at one point proclaiming “not in a thousand years would man ever fly.” At least that is according to Orville. Wilbur himself remembered that he said man wouldn’t fly for another fifty years.
It was not just that they had gone backwards, but they now realized that they were starting from scratch. There actually was no reliable data to build on. No good designs. As Wilbur said “We had to go ahead and discover everything ourselves.
So after the summer of 1901, they go home in quite a funk.
If they were going to have to do everything themselves, who knew how long that might take?
Serious scientific efforts had been going on for decades at this point, and the Wright Brothers were realizing that those efforts were useless. How much more successful could they really expect to be?
Okay, we’ll leave it there for episode one, tune in to episode two to hear how the brothers turn things around and, spoiler alert, discover how to fly.
Until then, thanks for listening to How to Take Over the World.