Five Professional Lessons from Wright Brothers’ Inventive Career

THE BOYS WERE DELIGHTED as their father returned home with a new toy. They gazed keenly as the little winged helicopter soared in the air and hovered around the room. The toy was broken soon, as all toys do, but that little moment led to one of the most momentous milestones in human history. The two kids tried to build a larger version but failed; however, this left in them an eternal desire to build a flying machine one day.

Milton Wright, the boys’ father, was a church bishop; he travelled often to visit people associated with his church. But he never forgot to bring something novel for his sons: Wilbur, the elder one and Orville, four years his junior; the two brothers were literally inseparable. Their mother Susan was adept at making and fixing things at home. Her knack for homemade tools instilled in his sons a love for mechanical things.

Milton and Susan Wright had three more kids, but Wilbur and Orville went on to become a bit more famous; the Wright brothers from Dayton, Ohio—the duo who invented the airplane. While Wilbur was good in both academics and sports, young Orville had enormous curiosity and energy; school was not his favorite place though. Nonetheless, their parents were equally supportive to both.  Orville later wrote:

“We were lucky enough to grow up with encouragement to investigate whatever aroused our curiosity”.

Lesson One: Never try to snub your kids’ curiosity and creativity, dear parents! Instead support them in their endeavors, and not just academic ones. Rather than being suppressive, try to give their passion a positive direction. Though a large part of Wright brothers’ success can be attributed to their hard work and perseverance, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the encouraging upbringing they got from their parents.

Still in high school, Orville’s mind was filled with innovative business ideas. Using woodcuts carvings, he started printing calling cards. Subsequently, he made his own printing press and even published his own newspaper called West Side News when he was just a teenager. Wilbur, being a bookish fellow, became the paper’s editor. Though each brother had his own personality, they found that they fit together perfectly.

They key to their mutual understanding was that they often shared their thoughts and aspirations. Wilbur wrote many years later,

“Nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions, and discussions between us”

Lesson Two: Discuss and share ideas with your peers. In any team or group, no two members are similar or exactly like-minded; we are all different and unique with our own strengths and weaknesses. The purpose of building a team is to complement each other and to achieve shared objectives; just like Wilbur and Orville did by boosting each other.

In 1892, Orville and Wilbur became fond of riding bicycles, which were becoming vastly popular compared to horses. However, this opened a new business avenue for the brothers; their friends knew that the Wright brothers were good at fixing things, so they started bringing bikes for repairs in Wrights’ printing shop.

A few months later, the Wright Cycle Exchange opened on Third Street in Dayton; not only did they fix bikes, they started selling parts and tires as well. They even made their own range of bicycles; the Van Cleve was the fanciest and sold for $65 in those times. Their background with newspaper publishing helped them market their bicycle business; they printed a special issue of the newspaper with ads and information about their bicycle shop.

Lesson Three: Do not overlook skills acquired in the past while moving onto new ventures; keep a stock of your competencies and use them to your aid where needed. While the Wright brothers had shifted from printing to bicycles business, they used their experience in newspaper publishing to find new customers for their bicycles; as you will notice later in the story that they even applied their experience with bicycles in making airplanes.

The last few decades of 1800s were the golden age for invention. Thomas Edison had perfected the light bulb; Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone. Around this time, Otto Lilienthal, a German aviator, after more than two thousand short flights, died in a gladiator crash. As they read about the tragic incident, it took Wright brothers back to their childhood dream: to build a flying machine.

While their bicycle business was faring reasonably well, the Wrights spent the next few years studying about aviation and soon they were confident enough to build a glider of their own. As they investigated the causes of failure of the gliders built before them, Wilbur and Orville identified that they needed three things: an engine to make the aircraft move forward, a wing to lift the machine upward, and something to control the machine once it was in the air.

They had already built a small engine for their shop so that didn’t seem to be a problem. Next, they designed many different wing shapes to get the right lift. Nonetheless, controlling the machine once it was in the air was the hardest bit. The Wrights used their experience with bicycle manufacturing and applied the same techniques that required a rider to control a bicycle; they came up with twisted or warped wing design to provide a better control.

In 1901, with their first gliders ready, the brothers left for Kitty Hawk, a windy town with sandy soil suitable for soft landing. Made of wood and cloth mostly, their first gliders flew not more than a few seconds. But with each hard landing, they learnt something new. They took their lessons back to Dayton with an aim to return the next year with improved wing designs.

And they did return the next year. Nevertheless, this time, the glider spun in circles instead of flying straight. Orville thought it could work if they could move the tail along with the wings. He discussed the idea with Wilbur, and they came up with a movable rudder design. It turned out to be a significant improvement, and on October 23, 1902, Orville set a new world record for the longest glider flight, flying 622 feet in twenty-six seconds.

In 1903, they added a motor and propellers to their glider, transforming it into their first airplane. They headed to Kitty Hawk once again. On December 17, around 10:35 in the morning, Orville took the first powered flight; it lasted only twelve second and he flew only 120 feet, but the landing was safe. The Wright brothers had invented the airplane.

Lesson Four: Do not let failures break your courage. Most of the other aviators had either failed or lost their lives in inventing a flying machine, yet Wright brothers kept trying daringly, year after year. They could have died as well; but they held their objective larger than their lives. Such are serious inventors made!

By 1905, with their improved airplane design, the Wrights had made many successful flights, once even exceeding an hour of flight time. However, they stopped flying for the next three years as they thought their design could be stolen. Meanwhile, they tried to sell their airplane to the US Army. To their shock, the Army refused to respond, thinking they were some crooks coming up with imaginary ideas. Even the press thought they were liars rather than “Flyers”.

In the spring of 1908, the Wright Brothers tried another improved design in Kitty Hawk. Some paparazzi reporters watched their flight from bush hiding; the story was published in the Newspapers of New York City and Paris. The subsequent flight demonstrations in France put all doubts to rest and made Wilbur an overnight star. The US Army finally gave the brothers a contract to make airplanes for the United States and to train new pilots.

Lesson Five: Do not lose hope if people fail to recognize your achievements. Instead, continue your efforts till the world acknowledges. Wright brothers had many successful flights between 1905 and 1910 yet most of the people either hadn’t heard about them or considered the story of their flight a hoax. After being rejected by the US Army, they convinced the French of their accomplishments and from there on the whole world became their fan.

After Wilbur Wright died prematurely in 1912, Orville lost interest in flying; and in 1915, he sold his shares for $ 1 million and retired. However, he lived till 1948 to watch airplanes getting bigger and faster. This tale ends here but the next time you board an airplane, don’t forget to remind yourself that even after more than hundred years, every single airplane includes something created by the Wright brothers.

11 thoughts on “Five Professional Lessons from Wright Brothers’ Inventive Career

  1. Pingback: Five Professional Lessons from Steve Jobs’s Entrepreneurial Career | Five Lessons

  2. Pingback: Five Lessons to Help You Be Perseverant with Your Goals | Five Lessons

  3. Pingback: Five Lessons to Help You Get Recognition for Your Work | Five Lessons

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