The story of the Wright brothers begins with the bicycle. In 1893, Wilbur and Orville began selling and repairing bikes in their new business, the Wright Cycle Exchange.
With a bicycle craze grabbing the nation, they were in the right place at the right time.
Where are we going? To how the bicycle propelled more innovation.
The Wright Bicycles
In business only three years, they already could expand to a space with a downstairs showroom and an upstairs machine shop in which they made and designed their own bikes.
The Wright Brothers built and named the Van Cleve Bicycle (below):
One of their ads said that their bicycles, “…will have large tubing, high frame, tool steel bearings, needle wire spokes, narrow tread and every feature of an up-to-date bicycle. Its weight will be about 20 pounds. We are very certain that no wheel on the market will run easier or wear longer than this one, and we will guarantee it in the most unqualified manner.”
And it sounds like Orville especially liked what he did. Historian David McCulloch tells us that Orville’s face lit up whenever anyone would, “Bring up the subject of the shapes of handlebars or types of pedals…”
The Plane Connection
You can see where we are going. Some of the bike’s technological requisites resemble the airplane’s. Or, as one writer said in 1896,“It is not uncommon for the cyclist…to remark, Wheeling is just like flying!… To learn to wheel one must learn to balance; to learn to fly one must learn to balance.” Similarly, just like the bicycles they built, for their flying devices the Wright brothers needed lightweight materials that were strong, they had to grasp a chain and sprocket mode of propulsion, and they had to diminish wind resistance.
Our Bottom Line: Human Capital
The bicycle is a perfect example of how innovation unfolds. For the Wright brothers and Henry Ford who also had been a bicycle mechanic, the bicycle was a springboard for developing their human capital. Because of the bicycle, we got the development of hollow steel tubing for frames, air inflated rubber tires, ball bearings and differential gears that spun at different speeds. Even including a highway system, the list of positive externalities that developed from the bicycle would be rather long.
Below, Steve Jobs tells us that computers are like bicycles for our minds.