Not long ago I was asked to help a project team that had bogged down. I shared this story with them so they could reset and get over their finish line.
Wilbur and Orville Wright were not the first to try powered flight. There were many people working on this problem, leading up to their successful flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
The person most people expected to fly first was Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), astronomer and founder of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Instead of prior efforts to build large flapping wings, he focused on building a big engine modeled after warship propellers. His reasoning was to get past the initial drag of launch by brute force, and then the air would be thinner once they gained altitude.
Langley had more money than he could spend. He recruited a large team of people, and got help from mathematics professors. His team built a sizable 50HP engine and bolted it on a steel frame, then attached wings and a seat for the pilot. This took about 18 months. They didn’t build landing gear because the first test was a catapult launch over the Potomac River, with the added benefit of relatively still air. He called together journalists to observe the great event, and…
The plane plummeted into the Potomac. One reporter described it as “like a handful of mortar.” The second attempt a few months later had the same result. Fortunately, the pilot was unhurt both times.
By contrast, Wilbur and Orville had a high-school education, cleverness and determination, no outside funding at all, and ignored the engine issue. They focused instead on building the glider that could carry a person, fly into the wind, be steerable, and land on… you guessed it…land. This required many tests and adjustments, test flight after test flight over 3 years. Once they had a glider that worked, they built and attached the smallest engine they could make (it used an aluminum block). The engine made it possible to go long distances, and a later engine model allowed them to carry a second passenger.
I suggested to the project team that they should shift their focus on getting a successful small procedure working, before they worried about scaling it up with a big “engine.” I’m happy to report that they reframed the problem, refocused, and were successful.
(If you’d like to learn more, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers was one of my favorite books in 2015. Highly recommended. One of things you’ll learn is how important their sister Katherine was to their success.)