The Wright Stuff

December 20, 2013

The Wright Brothers’ flyer next to Apollo capsule in the Smithsonian

Earlier this week, on the 110th anniversary of the Wright Brother’s first flight, we learned that Neil Armstrong carried part of the Wright Flyer with him to the moon – a piece of muslin fabric from the left wing and a piece of wood from the left propeller.  (From’s 10 Things You May Not Know About the Wright Brothers.)

That he would choose such a deeply symbolic gesture, done without fanfare, is consistent with what we know and admire about Neil Armstrong – who was in many respects the opposite of the swaggering-right-stuff-machismo portrayal of astronauts in film.  In 2012 we compared his description of the successful culture of the Apollo 11 mission to that of the esprit de corps we find in good private growth companies.

Mr. Armstrong described the required reliability of each component used in an Apollo mission – statistically speaking 0.99996, a mere 4 failures per 100,000 operations – and pointed out that such reliability would still yield roughly 1000 separate identifiable failures per flight.   In reality, though, they experienced only 150 per flight.  What explained the dramatic difference?

I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, “If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it.” And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance… this was a project in which everybody involved was, one, interested, two, dedicated, and, three, fascinated by the job they were doing.

We can see the same entrepreneurial motivation at work in the origin story of that same space-faring muslin and wood:  the race to achieve powered flight between the Wright Brothers and Samuel Langley.  The former were interested, dedicated, fascinated, and trying to change the world with the loyalty and support of people who shared their dream.  The latter was using other people’s money to fuel his pride with the support of Harvard, The Smithsonian, The New York Times, and Teddy Roosevelt.  Langley’s spectacular failure in the nation’s capital was much more well attended than the little-noted (at the time) success in Kitty Hawk, but Langley’s support – as well as his own motivation – evaporated once his efforts became a well-publicized object of scorn and derision.

(See The Only Thing He Ever Made Fly Was Government Money to learn not only how Langley lost, but how he attempted to re-write history.)

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