What the Wright Brothers Can Teach us About Innovation


The Wright Brothers: Orville at right wing end of upended glider, bottom view; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina / Photo in Public Domain
Orville Wright, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina / Photo via Wikimedia Commons

How did two brothers with no formal training in engineering, physics or aeronautics, no investors or funding for their work, and no experience as aviators—or adventurers for that matter—solve the mystery of flight and become two of the most celebrated inventors of our time? A new book The Wright Brothers by award-winning author, David McCullough, explores this very question, chronicling the arduous and exhilarating story of Orville and Wilbur Wright and their successful quest to be the first to master human flight.

More than a great read, McCullough’s book outlines key themes that foster innovation – themes that apply today to business and social entrepreneurs alike.

1. Share A Dream With Someone.

Innovation starts with a dream – cliché, no doubt. Yet it is important to share a dream with others –a team, family member, friend, etc.—so that someone else can ‘carry the torch’ and provide the energy, ideas and hope at key times along the way. The Wright brothers’ dream of flight emerged in the summer of 1896, when Orville became gravely ill with typhoid fever. While he lay in bed delirious for day, Wilbur read aloud to Orville about Otto Lilienthal, a famous German glider. Known as one of the first aviators, Lilienthal had flown numerous gliders and made more than two thousand flights, the last ending in his death. Both brothers became fascinated with Lilienthal, and when Orville recovered they were hooked – ready to become aviators themselves, and to advance the field of aviation beyond gliding to engine powered, sustained flight. Over the next seven years, they took turns taking the lead – one would be the pilot, the engineer/designer, the observer, the spokesman, etc. They encouraged each other and believed in the work, despite numerous set-backs.

2. Study.

Once they embarked on their quest, the Wright brothers searched far and wide for anything that could provide them with insight into aeronautics. They immersed themselves in study of birds and flying, both by reading and observing birds in flight for hours on end. They wrote to the Smithsonian Institution requesting any and all published papers on human flight, as well as a list of other works in English the Smithsonian could refer to them. They reached out to other engineers and aviators, seeking their advice.

3. Fail and fail again.

Over the seven years it took them to successful fly their first motor powered glider, the Wright brothers endured numerous obstacles and setbacks. They persevered through numerous crashes, injuries, wrecks and damaged equipment, and poor and unpredictable weather (storms, wind, bitter cold, heat, etc.). They faced aeronautical challenges, such as how to maintain equilibrium and control while in the air; and engineering challenges, such as how to build a motor light enough to mount on their glider and propellers that were light, yet sufficiently strong. Through all of these trials they observed what went wrong, learned, made modifications, and tried again.

4. Find Creative Space.

The Wright brothers conducted their flight trials on Kitty Hawk, a barren, remote region in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, accessible only by boat. The chose Kitty Hawk for the ideal wind conditions for their glider. But there was no comforts of home. There was no running water, nor vegetation. They lived in tents for months at first, then sheds. The weather was alternatively hot and humid, and then frigidly cold. The mosquitoes were relentless. But they loved it. Kitty Hawk provided them with an unencumbered opportunity to experiment, to try and fail, away from the scrutiny of others.

Thus the contributions of the Wright brothers go well beyond human flight. These two novice inventors also provide a valuable frame for business and social entrepreneurs about how to move from ideas to success. They also importantly demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert in your field or highly educated to be innovative and have impact in your profession or community. You just need a dream you can share with others.

Jake MurrayJacob Murray is the executive director of the Wheelock College Aspire Institute, which seeks to improve education and social policy and practice.