Major inventions of a century ago
By Walter S. Ciciora,
Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on
Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues
Having paid our respects to a significant passing, let's now turn our attention to other historical matters of this month and year. A surprising number of cable technologists are also private pilots; some even own their own planes. I have dreamt of becoming a private pilot, but have never had both the money and the time simultaneously. Part of the technology occupation involves significant travel, and I have logged over two and a quarter million miles on just one carrier.
December 17, 2003 will be the 100th anniversary of the first acknowledged manned, powered, and three axis controlled flight at Kitty Hawk by the Wright Brothers. All of those adjectives are necessary, because others flew earlier. Nearly all of the earlier flights were not powered. Some of the earlier flights were controlled over only two axes, not enough to be practical. There is a claim that Gustav Whitehead achieved the world's first motorized flight on August 14, 1901 in Bridgeport, Conn. Powered by self-constructed motors, he flew a distance of a half mile. The first Wright Brothers flight lasted just 12 seconds. The best flight of that day lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet.
I recommend reading two important books on the subject: "Kill Devil Hill, Discovering The Secret of The Wright Brothers," 1979, by Harry Combs, Tern Style Press, and "Unlocking The Sky, Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane," 2002, by Seth Shulman, Harper Collins. These books not only cover this fascinating story, but they tell a lot about the way in which technology is developed.
The Combs book idolizes the Wright Brothers and shows them to be methodical, careful engineers applying the scientific method very carefully. The Wrights were self-taught engineers. Their story is testimony to the effectiveness of that method of learning. They studied others' work in the technology, dreamt up new theories, designed experiments to test the theories, took data, analyzed the data, and then designed the next model of their airplane. Their innovations include the airplane itself and the engine that powers it. Their motor was the lightest engine of that power level of its time.
The Wrights also provide lessons on the role of intellectual property, especially patents. The Wright Brothers' patent can be found on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site at http://www.uspto.gov. The patent number is 821,393, filed March 23, 1903 and issued May 22, 1906. The patent was filed before the first powered flight. But the earlier Wright gliders developed the principles covered in the patent. Note that the patent took over three years to issue.
Another interesting part of the story is their approach to business. This, perhaps, is the least complementary part of the story. The Wright Brothers wanted to own a monopoly on flight, much like Alexander Bell had a monopoly on telephony. While many technologists tend to lose interest in these aspects, that is unfortunate. The economics and business components of technology are critical to its growth and even survival. (My favorite definition of engineering is the application of science to make a profit.) The Wright Brothers have some lessons to teach us here.
The Shulman book takes a decidedly different view. In Shulman's book, Glenn Curtiss is the hero. Curtiss is an imaginative innovator making significant contributions. It appears that one of the fundamental conflicts between the Wrights and Curtiss is over "wing warping" versus ailerons. The Wrights' plane had somewhat flexible wings. To make a turn, one wing goes up and the other goes down. This is achieved by flexing the trailing edge of one wing upward and the trailing edge of the other wing downward. Curtiss achieved this effect by putting hinges between the main part of the wing and a small segment.
The issue boils down to whether that is equivalent to what the Wright Brothers did. That's not so easy to determine, as is evidenced by the lengthy court battle involving many lawyers. Reading both books is instructive in gaining an understanding of how these issues are argued and resolved.
In our industry, we have similar controversies over intellectual property. What constitutes an invention? How different must it be from what has already been done? When is it really obvious, and therefore not inventive? More and more, these are all issues cable technologists must understand if they are to avoid the kind of expensive and lengthy battles we see in these two books.
This year has other notable celebrations. It is the 100th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company. The Harley-Davidson motorcycle company is also 100 years old. Finally, Guglielmo Marconi sent the first two-way wireless message 100 years ago. Marconi is considered the "father of radio."
Have a comment? Contact Walt by e-mail at: Walt@Ciciora.com