This December marks the 100th anniversary of powered flight. For a family vacation a few years ago, we rented a house at Nags Head, a spit of beach on North Carolina’s outer banks, just a few mileposts south of Kitty Hawk. On a bad beach day, we took our four kids to visit the site of the Wright brothers famous first.
There’s a national park there now with some recreated buildings and a replica of the original flyer. In a field behind the museum building, stone markers show the distances that Orville and Wilber traveled on each of the four flights they made on that first day of air travel. The last flight of the day—and the best—was about 120 feet, which is shorter than the wingspan of a 747 jet.
The Wright brothers’ day job in Dayton, Ohio, was making bicycles. These guys were manufacturers. As professional gear (or sprocket) heads, they had the skills to act on their fascination with flight and actually build stuff that would eventually help them leave the ground.
They approached the problem of flight using experimentation and creativity—blending art and science—which led them to create a wind tunnel for aerodynamics and wing warping for maneuverability. Those are just two examples of new things these guys dreamed up and built to further their drive toward that December 1903 date with destiny.
I like the fact that the Wright brothers were manufacturers. Much of the lifestyle we have in the 21st century is a result of people actually building their ideas.
As I reflect on the 100th anniversary of flight, I wonder if the environment in America today is as ripe for people like the Wrights as it once was. A natural casualty of innovation over time is a tendency of those who benefit from it to become complacent.
Most people simply expect a plane to fly, with little or no wonder at the fact that it does fly. When I look at a 747 parked at an airport gate, taking up the whole window with its huge size, I cannot help but wonder how the thing gets off the ground. Likewise, when I visit manufacturing shops to tell their story in the magazine, I still, after all these years, have to wonder at how they creatively blend the art and science of metalworking in such a variety of ways and make a living at it.
It would be a shame for this rich heritage of taking ideas from the mind to the hands to the market to somehow get dismissed as obsolete by jaded complacency and a lack of wonder from those who simply don’t know any better.