Lessons from Kitty Hawk: What the Wright Brothers Taught Us About Innovation

Thanks to the Wright Brothers, I can gain a whole new perspective of life on the ground whenever I ascend up 30,000 feet in the air. Although heights scare me, the ability to travel across the country and world thanks to their systematic innovating is something I’m amazed with.

Orville (left), Wilbur (right)

From reading the Wright Brother’s biography, here are three takeaways I learned about innovation:

  1. Don’t be afraid to fly, but know when you should

Now, this is a point I found a lot of comfort in. I always seem to put pressure on myself to take risks and create whenver inspiration draws on me. Learning from the Wright Brothers, there is a time and place to truly start the risk-taking process. The Wright Brothers only began to start testing planes when they had enough research to support that their design would be feasible enough to fly. Their tests were dangerous and the Wright Brothers were aware of their own mortality. In order to successfully test, matters on the ground had to be logical before being tested in the air. “The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and overconfidence are usually more dangerous than diliberately accepted risks.” Preparation is key. Confidence matters, but only if met with deliberate planning. Ideas that fail are the risks taken too quickly.

2. Find your team

Orville and Wilbur Wright did not test planes alone. They had the support from their family: notably their sister Katherine. Other support came from Charlie Taylor and Octave Chanute. Charlie Taylor, a young mechanic from Ohio helped create parts for their prototypes such as brakes from parts of a bicycle. Octave Chanute was a leading authority of aviation at the time and an internationally known engineer. He teamed up with the brothers and helped them by giving them designs, financial support, and helpful tools. Collaboration is essential for creative endeavors in order to fully materialize a concept. Alone, the Wright Brothers would have not had the resources they needed to be the first in flight. An important lesson in innovation is your first idea may not be perfect, and may meet criticism. An idea begins to become something great once it has been revised multiple times. Creating as an individual can only go so far because of one’s singular past and experiences. When different persepctives come together in creativity, ideas become innovations.

1896, Chanute’s Design

3. Successful designs aren’t random

Successful innovations draw on what already exists, then goes further. The Wright Brothers did a lot of their research on birds and how they use the wind, their wings, and equilibirium to fly. They then took this research and translated it into the design of their planes. “The buzzard which uses the dihedral angle finds greater difficulty to maintain equilibrium in strong winds than eagles and hawks which hold their wings level…no bird soars in a calm.” Certain systems in the universe just work. This is due to shape, design, or movement. Knowing how to translate different known systems into innovation can further perpetuate a working idea.

Am I planning on designing a plane? Well, no. But the approaches the Wright Brothers took to materialize their idea and take flight are things I can take with me in innovative endeavors. Their plane did not fly on the first try and they did not try to tackle a big undertaking without additional help. Innovation takes time and many resources. Knowing where to find the correct resources and what to do with them will increase success.

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