Why no one cared about the Wright brothers airplane

[In 28 days my latest book, The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity, launches. I’m counting down until then with a story a day  – see the series here]

When the Wright brothers landed from their famous flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903 almost no one was there: just five people including a boy from the neighborhood. This is surprising to us in the present because in the nearly 114 years since that day airplanes have become central to modern life. But at the time airplanes were mostly a curiosity. Many other inventors over the centuries had attempted, and in some cases succeeded, at different variants of assisted and even powered flight. But the world shrugged at them all. “What problem does this solve?” was an excellent and largely unanswered question for these men and their machines.

Even the Wright brothers themselves weren’t entirely sure what powered flight could achieve. They passionately believed the invention would help end wars, as the power to see enemies from above would, in their thinking, eliminate the incentive to attack at all. Given the central role airplanes have played in modern warfare for decades this notion seems terribly naive, but inventors often are. The ability to create something doesn’t come with the ability to predict the future (although often often comes with enough hubris to make the inventor believe otherwise). Regardless, they faced a more pressing problem after their famous flight. Almost no one in the U.S. was interested in their creation for any purpose at all.

The Wright brothers had to go to Europe for a time to try and to sell their ideas, and it took many months before they found their first customers. They finally negotiated a contract with the U.S. government in 1907. It was the first military contract in aviation history. It took four years to get someone to pay for their airplane design.

What can we learn:

  • When you do something truly significant, the world may not understand or care (see Why The Best Idea Doesn’t Always Win). Selling an idea is often harder than coming up with one. (“Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” – Howard Aiken)
  • It’s hard to predict how new ideas will be used, even for their inventors
  • Progress and change happens far slower than we think (and history helps remind us of this fact)
  • Asking “what problem does this solve?” is a powerful tool – but not having a clear answer does not mean the idea is useless (although it might be). It may just mean the use hasn’t been discovered yet. Working on new ideas is a dance with both the possible and the impossible.

The detailed invention story of the Wright brothers airplane is one of my favorites and among the most rewarding, as they patiently applied problem solving, research and invention approaches without any formal training. An inspiring, and well illustrated, read is How We Invented The Airplane by Orville Wright.

8 Responses to “Why no one cared about the Wright brothers airplane”

  1. Sean Crawford

    So much for “the customer…market…public is always right.”

    As for being irreverent towards the public, I am amused by how Apple CEO Steve Jobs had no use for focus groups.

    1. Scott Berkun

      For fun I wonder what the Wright brothers would think of Jobs’ position on that – they were consummate researchers and saw great value in obtaining data. I always thought Jobs was more against the abuses of customer information, rather than having a true lack of appreciation for understanding customers (focus groups are a particularly spurious approach to learning about people/customers)

  2. Felipe Borges

    Did you know that the fact that the “Wright Brothers” created the first airplane is very questionable and it is considered abroad to be a US-centered version of facts? Santos Dummont is recognized as the inventor of the airplane in plenty of other nations, including the aviation club of paris (where he was flying).

    1. Scott Berkun

      Hi Felipe: Yes! I was careful in how I worded this post. I don’t claim anywhere that they were first.

      As is often the case, “being first” depends on precisely defining the invention as depending on the details different people deserve credit. In the case of airplanes, there are different people who were first to:

      – first to fly a dirigible / blimp / balloon
      – first to fly a glider
      – first to fly a controllable glider (assisted)
      – first to fly a controllable glider (un-assisted)
      – first to fly a powered airplane 10 feet
      – first to fly a powered airplane 10 feet (un-assisted)
      – first to fly a powered airplane 100 feet

      And on it goes. Whitehead often comes up as having a prior claim but the evidence is poor. Dummont’s powered flight was in 1906, a few years after the Wright brothers.

      It’s not uncommon for different nations to honor different people as “being first” or the “father of” – sometimes this is supported by the historical record, but often it’s a matter of nationalistic preference. In the U.S. Edison is often credited with inventing the electric light bulb, but it’s well documented (including a patent) that Englishman Joseph Swan had made most of those achievements first.

      It’s also common to have independent inventions – two people in two different countries can independently achieve the same thing, not knowing of the other. Only later when the historical records are compared can it be clear who was first.

  3. Geoff Boltach

    Another fascinating read is David McCullough’s book about the Wright Brothers.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I’ve read some of his other (excellent) books, but not the one on the Wright Brothers. Someday!

  4. Henry

    Great read Scott, but I have to take issue with your assumption that change happens slowly.
    I think it’s accelerated massively since the days of the Wright Bros. Ten years ago Nokia ruled the mobile market – and don’t get me started on Kodak…

    1. Scott Berkun

      Imagine you invented a better electricity plug. How long would it take for 10% of the world to use it? It would take a loooong time.

      I admit that for some things, say mobile apps, that change is fast. But speed is often a sign of superficialness. The deeper the technology is (say plumbing, or interstate highways, or even massive digital systems) the slower the possible amount of (safe) change. And sometimes for good reason (fast changes can lead to more errors and unexpected consequences).


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