In 1899, the Wrights set out to read everything published on the subject of human flight. Next, they broke down the problem of flight into three categories: lift, balance, and propulsion. They decided to concentrate on balance, but not as an end in itself. They would have to attain balance before moving on to the less difficult problems of aerodynamics and motor power. As historian Oliver Jensen puts it, there is “a kind of simple, sensible, one-two-three progression to their whole four-year epic, with only a few downhearted moments when they had to return to the drawing board.”
But the invention of the airplane was not open to anyone with good organizational skills. Time and again, when the Wrights went to the drawing board, they arrived at solutions by literally seeing what no one else saw. Wilbur saw a buzzard twisting its wing tips and came up with an idea for maintaining balance and control in a flying machine. He twisted a small rectangular box and saw a method for twisting a flying machine’s wing tips. Other experimenters designed flying machines that would be inherently stable; the Wrights thought of a flying machine in terms of a bicycle—a vehicle that is not inherently stable, but that allows the operator a great deal of control. When it came time to design propellers, the Wright had no other model than a ship’s propeller. After long and often heated discussions, they came to see the flying machine propeller as another wing, a wing that moves sideways.
This gift for visualization—seeing one thing as another thing—is evident in their easy use of metaphor and simile. Having invented the airplane, they could describe the experience of flight in language that rises to the literary.
“Once above the tree tops, the narrow roads no longer arbitrarily fix the course,” Wilbur wrote in Scientific American in 1908. “The earth is spread out before the eye with a richness of color and beauty of pattern never imagined by those who have gazed at the landscape edgewise only. The view of the ordinary traveler is as inadequate as that of an ant crawling over a magnificent rug.”