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How the Wrights Got It Right

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017  issue of Change Agent.

This issue of Change Agent is largely about research, that powerful, essential tool that makes modern life possible. In these pages you’ll find useful and (we hope) inspiring examples of research that helps us communicate more effectively.  But it never hurts to remember the challenges of conducting solid research. One example – from two of the greatest researchers and inventors ever – will serve.

As the 20th Century opened, Orville and Wilbur Wright were racing other brilliant innovators around the globe to master powered, controlled flight. (“Power” and “control” were the crucial terms. Earlier inventers had solved control, with gliders. And others had provided power, by affixing engines to flying machines, which had the unfortunate habit of crashing).

The bicycle makers from Dayton were ingenious tinkerers, moving closer and closer, year by year, to their dream. But in 1901, something was going wrong, deeply frustrating and confounding them.

Like their competitors, the Wrights relied on earlier researchers’ discoveries. Two of the more important ones dealt with the “lift,” or upward force, a wing or foil should generate under various conditions. German inventor Otto Lilienthal had published his “coefficients of lift” table in 1895, a year before he died in a glider crash. He based his findings partly on the “Smeaton coefficient,” published 136 years earlier by English engineer John Smeaton. These mathematical formulas, along with other research, predicted the lift the brothers should have experienced when they tested their “Wright Glider” at Kill Devil Hills, N.C. (near Kitty Hawk) in 1901.

But the brothers returned to Ohio that summer dejected, with Wilbur writing in his diary: “Found lift of machine much less than Lilienthal’s tables would indicate.” He predicted man would not fly “within our lifetime.”

Suspecting something was amiss in the Lilienthal and Smeaton equations, the brothers decided to conduct their own experiments. They built a small wind tunnel in their workshop “and developed their own aerodynamic data by systematically testing some 200 airfoils of widely different shapes and configurations,” writes historian Richard Stimson.

It turned out that Smeaton’s formula was off the mark, and the brothers (and others) were misinterpreting Lilienthal’s tables.

The Wright Brothers’ 1901 setbacks, Stimson writes, “led them into doing research that propelled their knowledge far beyond anyone before them.”

That research-driven knowledge culminated in the brothers’ fabulous breakthrough at Kitty Hawk in 1903. It’s something to ponder the next time you gaze out the window on your flight home – or wonder if a bit more research might be worth it.

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