Lessons from the Wright brothers — and not Charles Babbage

Oct. 1, 2003
The Dec. 17 centennial commemoration of the Wright brothers' flight represents an opportunity to consider again how things get invented — and how they don't.

By John Rhea

WASHINGTON — The Dec. 17 centennial commemoration of the Wright brothers' flight represents an opportunity to consider again how things get invented — and how they don't.

I contend that when the necessary supporting technologies coalesce it is impossible for the resulting inventions not to occur. If the Wright brothers had not flown on Dec. 17, somebody else would have within a matter of weeks or months.

If the Wright Brothers had not flown on Dec. 17, somebody else would have within a matter of weeks or months.
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Everybody back then who was paying attention knew that the necessary technologies, particularly the internal combustion engine, were in place and that it was only a matter of time before the first powered flight.

What they didn't know — and here is where this example is relevant for the electronics industry — is how to apply the supporting technologies.

For millennia humans had been watching birds and hoping to emulate them. Why do birds fly? The obvious — and incorrect — answer is that they flap their wings.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century the scientific establishment of the time was groping its way toward powered flight. Those pioneers included Otto Lilienthal in Germany, Octave Chanute in the United States, and, least known of all, Lawrence Hargrave in Australia.

In fact, the first aircraft flight could have occurred in Australia. Hargrave was actually blazing the way in such areas as aircraft engines, the use of wings with curved surfaces to increase lift, and vertical stabilizers. The reason we're not commemorating him is that he refused to give up on the common-sense approach of flapping wings.

The Wright brothers apparently intuitively knew that there had to be a better way. At the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, is what I consider their greatest accomplishment: the wind tunnel.

I try to visit it every time I'm in that area. It's not very impressive, a wooden box that would easily fit in most kitchens, but it ushered in the new science of aerodynamics. The initial flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., was almost an anticlimax.

Now consider some of the challenges facing the electronics industry: optoelectronics, artificial intelligence, and moving off Row 4 of the Periodic Table of Elements (principally silicon, but also carbon and germanium). Do you see any flapping wings here?

A few years ago researchers at Stanford University demonstrated a robot that could blunder around a room about as efficiently as somebody who had consumed half a dozen martinis. I think I'll reserve my judgment until they can demonstrate one that can function like somebody sober. And then, of course, there are the chess-playing computers. Wake me up when it's over.

An example from electronics prehistory further illustrates this situation. In 1823 Charles Babbage in England began work on a steam-powered computer, known initially as the difference engine. Predictably, it didn't work.

What makes this story particularly poignant is that he was doing it under a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract from the British Royal Navy. The purpose was to calculate tides, an important consideration in defending an island nation like Britain.

Not only did Babbage's computer not work, but it also represented a continuing financial drain on him and his backers. At that moment Countess Ada Lovelace tried to come to his rescue, and in 1833 Babbage tried another model known as the analytical engine. Predictably, it didn't work either, yet the project was not a complete failure.

The system architecture of Babbage's machines was remarkably similar to today's computers. The unfortunate difference was that his machines were supposed to be plugged into a steam engine instead of an electrical outlet, as we do today. A more recent — and successful — example is the invention of the integrated circuit. All the technological ducks were lined up and this invention in retrospect was inevitable.

In the summer of 1958 Jack Kilby, as a new hire at Texas Instruments in Dallas, didn't have any vacation time. So, with nothing much else to do and all the research facilities available to him, he invented the integrated circuit. The rest, as one of my least favorite sportscasters says, is history.

Can you imagine a world of airplanes that flap their wings, computers powered by steam engines, and electronics without integrated circuits, and the logical next step 13 years later, the microprocessor? Of course not.

Maybe we're too fascinated by the trees to see the forest. Or maybe we're so preoccupied by forests that we fail to examine critically the condition of the trees.

There's no question in my mind that something like artificial intelligence will evolve and that eventually we'll be processing data with photons instead of electrons. (Actually, it's more likely that there will be a mix in which electronics will never disappear; we still use many electro-mechanical devices in this age of electronics.)

Moreover, even those closest to the evolving technologies may not comprehend the magnitude of the change. In this regard, I'm fascinated by a public statement made by aviation pioneer Octave Chanute in 1906:

"The commercial uses of the flying machine are likely to be limited. They will be of small dimensions and carry little weight. They may be used in sport, in exploration, and perhaps in carrying mails, but they cannot compete in the regular transportation of passengers and freight."

Sure, it's easy to snicker now, but I think what Chanute was trying to do was to introduce a note of caution at a time when public opinion was being swayed to expect miraculous results from these new machines. I think the electronics industry would be well advised to take a similarly cautious approach and avoid overselling its miracles.

Nonetheless I intend to celebrate the Wright brothers' success on Dec. 17. It's the day after Beethoven's birthday.

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