Santos-Dumont, The Wright Brothers and Innovation

17 07 2008

This is a post I wrote long time ago in my internal blog at work and decided to publish here too, as it seems to still be current

Unless you’re Brazilian or an aviation enthusiast, chances are that you have never heard about Alberto Santos-Dumont. Most people in the world would not hesitate in saying that the Wright brothers invented the airplane. However, some claim that “the only witnesses to the Wright brothers flights (…) were typically close friends and family”, while “Santos-Dumont made his flights in public, often accompanied by the scientific elite of the time, then gathered in Paris” (read more about it here and here). The picture above (from Wikimedia Commons) shows one of his flights in the Bagatelle field (close to the Eiffel Tower). PBS aired “Wings of Madness”, a good documentary about Santos-Dumont, last year. Here are some excerpts from the program description:

In the early 1900s, the most acclaimed celebrity in Europe, and arguably the world, was a fashionable, frail, Brazilian-born aviator named Alberto Santos-Dumont. (…)Tiring of balloons, Santos built the 14bis, an ungainly tail-first flying machine that nevertheless made the first powered airplane flight in Europe in 1906. At that time, the Wright brothers’s secret early flights were widely disbelieved, so Santos and his adoring public were convinced he was the first to fly. When Wilbur made his triumphant European tour in 1908, Santos had to face the terrible realization that the Wrights were the true pioneers after all. But just before his long slide into illness began, he designed an exquisite new airplane out of bamboo: the Demoiselle, or Damselfly. One of the classic aircraft of the pioneering era, it was the true forerunner of today’s ultralight planes.

An interesting aside from this discussion is that the Gartner’s hype cycle around emerging technologies was already in full display mode 100 years ago: Dumont went from the technology trigger all the way to the plateau of productivity in a decade and was very hyped for a while to the point that the local Dayton Daily News in 1903 stated that the Wright brothers were emulating Dumont (Orville and Wilbur lived in Dayton):

In any case, the true answer for the question “Who invented the airplane” is: none of them. Or better yet, all of them: Orville, Wilbur, Alberto and several others pioneers, all should be credited with the invention of the airplane. We tend to like simple answers, and so we just accept that Gutenberg invented printing, Thomas Edison the light bulb and Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. In reality, all inventions and findings in the world are composites of ideas and experiments run by several people. That’s why I strongly believe that our current models governing intellectual property are outdated and preventing us from unleashing the true power of innovation. Our copyright laws are way too strict, and patents many times are inhibitors, not drivers, for new inventions.

Note that I’m not advocating that all IP protection should be dropped. However, the big accomplishment that should be awarded is not the idea, but the execution. Ideas are cheap, good implementation is the real challenge. This concept applies even in the case of artistic works like music, movies or books. Just imagine what would happen if everything was governed by a Creative Commons-like license, where anybody, everybody could share, remix and reuse whatever they want. Often times we see songs that were very flat in their original recording to become masterpieces with some novel interpretation. If we lower the barriers, even disasters could be rescued. Can you improve on “The Godfather” I and II? Unlikely. “The Godfather
III”, on the other side, had some good ideas ruined by a few really lame ones. The potential for a great movie was there, but it was never realized. You’re just left wondering “what if”. Of course, movies are not that easy to tweak, but scripts are. I bet that the last three Star Wars movies could benefit from better writing.

It would be interesting as a social experiment to establish a 5-year moratorium on all IP-related claims and see what would happen: chaos and the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it or an explosion in innovation. At a minimum, this approach would help us to find out how much control is actually needed to foster innovation.