It may have lasted only twelve seconds and travelled less than forty metres but the first powered flight on 14 December 1903 was a turning point in world history.
Orville and Wilbur Wright’s heavier-than-air flying machine revolutionised travel. And, less than 50 years after that first flight, wide-body passenger jets began circling the globe.
However, whilst the invention itself is what we usually focus on when we think of the Wright Brothers, how they got there is just as important.
For starters, the Wright Brothers weren’t scientists or engineers. They were bicycle salesmen. Their fascination with birds and mechanics led them to take a keen interest in solving what was known as ‘the flying problem’.
By December 1903, some of the brightest minds on the planet had made numerous failed attempts at flying. Governments and philanthropists invested huge sums. For example, Samuel Langley received $50,000 for his famed ‘Aerodrome’ project. Having spent years preparing his machine for its one and only flight, Langley’s ‘Aerodrome’ crashed immediately after take-off.
By contrast, the insatiably curious Wright Brothers trialled and improved as they went and built their plane for just $1000. They weren’t concerned about waiting until their machine was perfect before seeing if it would fly.
Moreover, unlike other inventors at the time, the Wright Brothers weren’t obsessed with a single theory of flight. They carefully studied aeronautics and advances in gliding technology. Wilbur even spent hours observing birds. Crucially he noticed how they changed the angle of their wings to roll left or right. This led to the development of three-axis aerodynamic controls, potentially the most fundamental discovery on the road to overcoming the ‘flying problem’.
As a decision-making team, the Wright Brothers were highly effective. Their approach is an excellent example of ‘Academic Rigour’ at work.
The brothers weren’t locked into a favourite theory or hunch. They applied credible and proven flight principles to their creations and then tested each element to discover if it could be used or rejected in further stages of development.
Moreover, because the Wright Brothers weren’t beholden to a specialist field, they were open to looking at multiple disciplines, from biology to meteorology to aerodynamics. It could be said this open-mindedness was the secret to their secret.
As one of the four key decision thinking principles, Academic Rigour, creates a clear audit trail of a decision so it can stand up to scrutiny.
And the Wright Brothers expected their achievement to come in for plenty of scrutiny. That’s why whilst they knew the flight itself would gain the headlines; they understood the technology behind it was far more important.
Indeed, when the Wright Brothers lodged their first patent, it wasn’t for a flying machine but a system of aerodynamic control.