The Role of Open Methods in the Development of the First Airplane

Interesting case study from J. Simmon:

“The Open Source Spaceflight Hardware Movement has its roots in both the growing open source hardware movement, which is itself based on the open source software movement, and the application of open methods in aerospace engineering which dates back to the earliest days of the field. In fact, this openness led to the success of the Wright brothers.

The Wrights built upon a large body of published works including books, articles, and expired patents, dating back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. George Cayley identified the use of curved airfoils for lift, the need for controls, and the use of propellers as a means of propulsion as the fundamentals of flight in 1799. He also proposed the use of the bi-plane wing, which would later be used in a number of gliders, including those built by the Wrights, and the first airplane. These ideas were not widely known until Alphonse Penaud rediscovered and published Cayleys work. Penaud went on to expand Cayleys work by publishing what he saw as the core challenges to achieving heavy than air flights: resistance of the air, resistance of the machine, and a light weight motor. Even more important to the story of the Wrights was Penauds work in models and his use of rubber bands as a power source for model airplanes and helicopters, some of which were sold as toys. The Wright’s father gave young Wright brothers one of Penauds toy helicopters, which is said to be the catalyst for their interest in aviation as adults.

These principles and challenges identified by Cayley and Penaud were the core of the problems tackled by the Wrights, due in large part to the Wrights beginning their journey into aviation by researching all of the work done to date. But the aviation community’s influence on the Wrights’ work did not end with an understanding of the principles of aviation, it also influenced their approach to tackling the problem. Louis Pierre Mouillard, author of the 1881 book The Empire of the Air, was a proponent of using ailerons for roll control, a challenge that the Wrights solved with the related idea of wing warping. And it was Otto Lilienthal who in the late 1800s publicly promoted the idea that the best approach to developing the first airplane was to start by developing a reliable glider and then adding a motor. This is exactly the approach used by the Wright brothers in the development of the Wright Flyer. Finally, the Wrights knew and were in contact with Octave Chanute who published the most complete summary of nineteenth century aeronautics to date, Progress of Flying Machines, leaving little doubt that the Wrights were influenced by the developments of earlier aviation pioneers.

As can be seen above, the Wrights first airplane is the product of not only their hard work and ingenuity, but also of the culture of openness surrounding the field of aviation during the nineteenth century. In the words of author Courtlandt Canby in his book A History of Flight, “The Wrights were not pioneers. Their work, rather, culminated a century of experience.”

2 Comments The Role of Open Methods in the Development of the First Airplane

  1. AvatarLori

    Assuming what you say is true, Wright Aviation showed no hesitation to stomp on the commons from whence it came. Sort of reminiscent of biographical sketches of Bill Gates and Paul Allen that speak of “disassembly” and other forms of “reverse engineering,” a process of course forbidden by the Microsoft EULA. In the case of the aircraft industry, going into World War I, the US government created a “patent pool” so an aircraft industry would even be able to exist, let alone advance the state of the art. The aviation patent pool is often used today as an illustration of the Tragedy of the Anticommons.

  2. AvatarAlberto

    I read once that the fabric Santos Dumont used in his airplanes was inspired in the existing and known work by the Wright brothers. I never verified this story, but that would be another neat example of collaboration there. Very pretty like all the other facts you mention. But eventually the brother’s project became a military secret research. Not quite cool. They left very little information and documentation behind. You should tell the full story in this article. It shows the difference between normal open-source licences, and GPL or CC Share-Alike. The Wright brothers are a good example of someone who picks up open source work and then just build something for themselves on top of it.

    I still think their alleged first flight was just a long jump that landed in the mud, like it happened in the centenary re-enactment…

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