From Bicycle Design to Airplane Design

I love experimenting, tinkering with routines, technology and habits. So the following piece from Steve Pavlina struck a chord.

How Two Brothers Out-Competed the Experts of Their Day

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Wright brothers, who are credited with inventing the airplane. But do you know the story of how they succeeded?

In the early 1900s, there was lots of competition to develop an airplane that could take off and stay airborne for more than a few seconds. The Wright brothers’ competitors were more educated, more experienced with design and technology, and better funded. The brothers were outsiders who owned a bicycle shop. No one at the time considered them to be serious contenders in the field of aviation, except perhaps the brothers themselves.

The Wright brothers succeeded by leveraging their experience in another field. As part of their bicycle business, they’d made many iterative improvements to the bicycles of their day. Their approach was highly experimental. They’d come up with an idea to improve a bike, test it cheaply, and see if it worked. If the idea improved the experience of riding the bike, they kept it and further refined it. If the idea failed, they dropped it and tried something else.

Even though they didn’t know much about airplane design, the brothers understood the process of trial and error experimentation. So whereas their competitors were investing in expensive and complex designs and iterating infrequently, the Wright brothers did the opposite. They had to keep costs down because they had little money to invest, so they made cheap prototypes and tested new ideas frequently. They kept tweaking their designs and retesting. For their test flights, they used an area with high winds and soft sand dunes, so they could test their designs without killing themselves.

Interestingly, the brothers also applied this approach to designing how their planes would be piloted. The competition was trying to make their planes fly as straight as possible, so the pilot didn’t have as much control. But the Wrights, once again, did the opposite. They gave the pilot much more control with a 3-axis design, making it easier for the pilot to adjust the plane’s trajectory while it was in the air. And that made a huge difference. While the competition was basing their plane designs around the stability of a boat moving through water, the brothers modeled their designs around a bicycle that requires a skilled rider to keep it in balance.

By transplanting these success patterns from bicycle design to airplane design, the Wright brothers not only achieved a major coup in out-competing the experts, but they also transformed an industry’s thinking. To this day if you ride a bicycle or fly on a plane, you’re enjoying some of the benefits of the Wright brothers’ test-and-iterate-frequently approach to design.

How are you going to experiment this coming year? What small bets could you make? What experiments will you try?

I have made some plans.


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