Failing for Success: The Wright Brothers


Failing for Success: The Wright Brothers

March 10, 2016

Photo by John T. Daniels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But the Wright Brothers wouldn’t have known any success if it wasn’t for their repeated and oftentimes painful failures. It took the self-taught engineers years and numerous attempts to get anywhere close to powered flight. And even when they were about to achieve success, unforeseen setbacks surfaced that brought them to the brink of yet another failure.

Here’s their story:

After years of experiments and studying other aviation pioneers, the Wright Brothers traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to test out a new “glider” they had developed. Like a piloted kite, the glider used wind to sustain lift and whoever was piloting lay prone to avoid any excess drag. Unfortunately, sometimes the tests failed due to unexpected gusts and other hindrances. Nonetheless, even if it took time to repair the glider, the brothers never let a crash set them back. Instead they took what they learned to make their prototype more effective.

This was evident for their second glider. Once they went back to the drawing board, they made a few changes to the design like increasing the wing size. Though the glider showed some signs of improvement, it had difficulty with lift and was nearly impossible to control. In 1902, after even more failure followed by changes to their plans, they developed an improved glider that was easily controlled and could sustain a lift for an extended period of time. But this wasn’t enough of a triumph for the Wright Brothers – they wanted to fly a powered airplane.

The first thing they needed was an engine, but they couldn’t find a design that was light enough. So, amazingly, their mechanic Charlie Taylor simply made one himself. Following some more tinkering, the Wright Brothers were confident they could reach their goal. But then even more setbacks appeared: unforeseen technical problems and repeated bad weather caused three frustrating months to pass before they could test out the design.

When the time came, a coin toss ensued and Wilbur won, but the first attempt didn’t go as planned – after 3.5 seconds in the air, the plane stalled and crashed into the sand, damaging a key component of the aircraft. Three days later, once the component was repaired, Orville was able to take control and give their design another shot. It wasn’t pretty, but he sustained a solid 12 seconds of powered flight – the historic foundation for the future of human flight that today powers a global economy and inspires the imagination of young aviators everywhere.

It’s just another example of how failure can lead to enormous success.

Have any suggestions for our next “Failing for Success” story? Give us a shout on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn. And don’t forget to subscribe to our IV Insights blog and check out our Behind the Breakthrough profiles to hear first-hand from top inventors, innovators, and more. 

More Buzz From IV

Empowering Health Workers When Power is Unreliable

Global Good recently donated three INCUDIGIT-SV 30 biological culture incubators to the Governor’s office of Lagos State.

Read More
Why We Need Innovative Nuclear Energy

Intellectual Ventures founder and CEO Nathan Myhrvold illuminates why people and the planet need every source of reliable, carbon-free energy we can get.

Read More
Nathan Myhrvold on AI and Why There’s Nothing to Fear

Is artificial intelligence (AI) a boon or bane for humanity? Our founder and CEO Nathan Myhrvold delivered the World Traders 2018 Tacitus Lecture to discuss this fear, which he calls the “innovation menace.”

Read More