Despite our current troubles on Earth, something miraculous is going on nearly 160 million miles away. A rover about the size of a car recently landed on Mars. Obviously, that’s nothing new, but it carries something ground-breaking — a helicopter called “Ingenuity”.
If all goes well, this will be the first man-made object to fly on another planet. NASA also saw it fitting to add a good luck charm. Inside the drone is a piece of fabric from the Wright Brothers’ “Flyer 1” airplane. While on its face, it just appears to be a ceremonial addition, but there’s much more to this.
Think about it; humanity only learned to fly in 1903. By the 1960s we reached space and the moon. Near 60 years after this, we’re flying drones on Mars. Birds are masters of flight with millions of years of experience, and even they can’t come close to equaling this.
It’s a monumental achievement in such a short time. The piece of fabric tucked away in a device called “Ingenuity” is a physical reminder of all the possibilities available when we think, work, and innovate.
It’s also a call to look back at the ingenuity of the pair that lifted us off the ground in the first place. The Wright Brothers are a prime example of people who manifested physical results from a dream. What’s more, they leave us lessons to follow which we can apply personally as we try to leave the ground in our own lives.
The Sky Doesn’t Care If You Have A Fancy Degree
“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
— Albert Einstein
Just about everyone realizes that education is an important part of growth and improvement. However, you don’t need to go to a school for it. Education can be self-directed, and many times this is the most effective path.
In his book “The Hidden Habits of Genius”, another Wright — Dr. Craig Wright — reminds us many considered geniuses were bad students. Among the group were Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, and Mozart.
He specifically mentions Chinese business genius Jack Ma told his son finishing at the top of his class wasn’t important. Being in the middle is fine; it just means you have more time to invest learning other skills.
According to David McCullough’s book “The Wright Brothers”, their father had similar ideas to Ma. Namely, important knowledge isn’t only learned at school. McCullough gives this description of the pair’s father:
“Between formal education at school and informal education at home, it would seem he put more value on the latter. He was never overly concerned about his children’s attendance at school. If one or the other of them chose to miss a day or two for some project or interest he thought worthy, it was all right.”
Both brothers never graduated high school but had access at home to the works of Dickens, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, Virgil, Milton, and Plutarch to name a few. They also had their “projects”.
The boys dropped out of school to start a printing business, with a printer they built themselves. They’d also run a bicycle shop, building and repairing bikes. Between the two businesses, they developed literary and engineering minds. This self-directed learning was invaluable to their future in flight.
Range Beats Depth In Getting Off The Ground
In his book, Dr. Wright explains Leonardo Da Vinci’s start as an artist helped him dramatically in his study of anatomy, biology, mathematics, and engineering. Often all these skills mixed during a single pursuit.
- The detailed eye for the human figure made the painter want to look underneath the skin he was painting (anatomy).
- Da Vinci often broke pictures up into quadrants and used geometry in his art (mathematics).
- The polymath often traveled to swamps and marshes to study insects and plants, drawing what he saw with his careful eye (biology).
The brothers operated in similar fashion. Their work with bicycles taught them the most important part of a machine you ride on is control. Many others attempting powered flight over-invested time in the “power” or the engine.
The Wright Brothers used their mechanical skills to develop kites, then gliders before they even thought about the engine. This led to breakthroughs in wing control and also design when they developed their own simple wind tunnel. You read that correctly; they did this in 1901.
Their range of knowledge gave them a unique advantage over a well-funded competitor at a university named Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley. According to McCullough, the brothers flew with only $1,000 invested in the project versus Langley’s $70,000 in 1903. So, apparently the brothers’ wide-ranging experience equates to two-million-dollars’ worth of value in present day money.
Often knowledge over a wide range of disciplines can come together in unique ways. Sometimes it can open doors locked to those who hyper-focus.
Knowledge And Skill Work Better As A Group Project
Matt Ridley, in his book “How Innovation Works”, mentions genius inventions are often attributed to one person. However, he argues invention is a group project. According to Ridley, the Wright Brothers communicated regularly with a community of other innovators attempting to fly.
By seeking advice and sharing knowledge, they saved lots of time in their pursuit. Ridley mentions they devoured notes and news stories from earlier flyers — especially those who had horrific disasters.
The deaths and injuries of other flyers convinced the brothers to test their designs on kites and rope-flown gliders before climbing aboard themselves. They might have died long before they flew otherwise.
The brothers also knew nothing about engine design. When the time came to get the engine for their airframe, they turned to a local mechanic who machined bike parts for them, Charlie Taylor. According to McCullough, Taylor built an 8-horsepower engine in 6 weeks capable of lifting 675lbs.
Ridley explains Langley tried to design his plane himself and didn’t seek help or input from others. The resulting $70,000 airplane with its 52 HP engine smashed into the Potomac River upon its maiden flight, almost killing the pilot. A few weeks after, the brothers took to the skies and Langley gave up. The rest is history.
Flight Manual From The Wright Brothers
We may never fly a plane or step foot on Mars, but we’re all capable of leaving the humble ground we find ourselves standing on. The Wright Brothers’ lessons on taking to the skies are invaluable. Whether you’re attempting to achieve a spectacular record, or just trying to be a better person, much can be learned by their methods.
- You can be one of the smartest people in the room without an advanced degree. Learning isn’t limited to a classroom. In fact, some of the best learning is self-directed as the Wright Brother’s father reminds us.
- Take time to learn things from other disciplines. The cross-pollination of ideas can result in something truly unique. Knowledge of bicycles convinced Orville and Wilbur to concentrate on control before the engine. Your distinctive skill set will enable your own individual breakthrough.
- Find a community that loves what you’re learning. Network with this group and share ideas. There may be lone, unique geniuses, but innovation is often a group project. Share your project with that group and you’ll grow quicker than you could alone.