Why it took 400 years to invent the wing

You would be forgiven for thinking the three photographs below were various “Wright Flyers” piloted by renowned flight pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright. They’re not – They are photographs of different flights that took place at roughly the same time…


You would be forgiven for thinking the three photographs below were various “Wright Flyers” piloted by renowned flight pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright.




They’re not – They are photographs of different flights that took place at roughly the same time as the famous Wright brothers’ flight. Not all of these inventors knew of each other’s existence prior to their inventions. This bizarre case of “simultaneous invention” has occurred many times before, and since, the Wright brothers’ flight. The polio vaccine was developed by three separate scientists almost at once. The patent for the telephone was filed by two separate individuals on the same day.

Why does innovation occur simultaneously? We tend to have an idealised view of how scientists work. We have a picture of an individual in a workshop making a few sketches and shouting out in joy at having thought of the wing. If this was indeed the case, then the occurrence of simultaneous inventions would almost defy logic.

The reality is that the inventors and innovators captivate the views, thoughts and ideas of their day as well as existing technology, and it is this trait, that explains the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery.

The story of fixed-wing self-powered flight

The first recorded study of flight was Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Codex on the Flight of Birds” in 1505. John Smeaton was the first to attempt to quantify the phenomenon of lift prior to 1800. Using the concept of lift, George Cayley just after 1800 conceived the concept of cambered airfoil and made the world’s first glider. The glider could barely move any practical distance. Otto Lilienthal, in 1889, took experimentation to a new level. By absorbing the thoughts of his day, he made an astonishing 2500 glides and documented his findings in the famous “Lilienthal tables”. The Wright brothers could not emulate the data in the Lilienthal tables because of an error in the concept developed by Smeaton over 100 years earlier. Out of frustration, they went over and above Lilienthal’s experiments by creating the world’s first rudimentary wind tunnel. They realised that “camber”, “aspect ratios” and “angle of attack” all contributed to various lifts. And so, 398 years after its first study, Wright Wing Number 31 was selected for the historic flight. The wing, by itself, was insufficient for the flight – they had to procure the latest internal combustion engine to power the plane. Luckily for them, this had been developed in parallel, and with its own intricate history. The Wright brothers, by profession, were bicycle manufacturers, not backyard inventors or carpenters – the perfect candidates for flight pioneers. Think light weight rivets, spokes, wheel rims and tubes.

The Adjacent Possible explains simultaneous discovery

The same fascinating story can be found in numerous other inventions such as the Gutenburg press. The movable type, the press, paper and ink all have stories of the their own. And few of them were traced back to “Eureka” moments. Steven Johnson first proposed the concept of an adjacent possible which originally has its roots in microbiology. As Steven Johnson writes in the Wall Street Journal:

“the [adjacent possible] boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”

We can therefore argue that no matter how much of a genius Da Vinci was, he could not have possibly made a flying machine back in 1505. He was not at the boundary of the adjacent possible. He most certainly contributed to it as he was part of the enlightenment and laid the early foundations of putting innovative thoughts on paper. John Smeaton’s lift equation was wrong but it was a critical contribution in that it attempted to quantify the mysterious phenomena of lift into an equation and enabled Otto Lilienthal to record his famous tables.

What can Fintech Learn about the Adjacent Possible?

The story of the wing is an extreme case study of iterative innovations towards a single invention.

Players in the Fintech space could learn from this theme. Innovation happens on the boundaries of the adjacent possible. For example, crypto currencies could not be implemented prior to the ability to hold distributed ledgers on multiple databases connected in a common consortiumEureka moments are indeed rare. Innovation initiatives should reach out to the world to absorb the thoughts and ideas of the day. Businesses should look within their own boundaries to find their own “Lilienthal tables” – to see what worked and what didn’t, in order to innovate effectively.

The Palau island tribes did, in theory, implement a blockchain in 500AD but the “ledger” was effectively narratives held by the tribes elders

by Dejan Popovic