Dawn of Flight

Listen to the audio for this essay here.

The author says that the Wright brothers succeeded due to a combination of having the right skills at the right time, and putting in the work they needed to refine the design of what was (probably) the first practical fixed-wing, heavier-than-air aircraft. No matter how much belief you put in other claims of being first, the Wrights came up with better controls along all three axes needed for flight, including simultaneous roll and yaw, than anyone before them.

Inventions are often attributed to a single inventor. In reality, one person is rarely responsible for a breakthrough in technology. The technology itself is rarely a breakthrough, but is instead a refinement or extension of existing concepts and the equipment needed to put the ideas into practical use. One of the most famous equations in history, E = mc2, was built upon the ideas of past geniuses.

There was a TV series called Connections that talked about how “modern” inventions had their origins in the past, sometimes surprisingly far back and through indirect paths.

For example, waterwheels became power supplies for industrial processes. Looms gradually changed from being a labor-intensive device into a machine that could run more or less by itself. The combination led to looms powered by waterwheels, one of the first machines of the industrial revolution, and the same system of cards used for producing different patterns on those looms eventually were used for programming computers. So, the computer you are using to read these words has its origins in a piece of technology invented well over 2000 years ago in ancient Greece and Rome.

(You can view some episodes of the original Connections on YouTube and you can buy an updated copy (2007) of the book that was originally based on the 1978 TV series. I highly recommend getting the paper copy instead of the cheaper ebook version because there are hundreds of color illustrations.)

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