Three Design Lessons From the Wright Brothers

You you can learn a lot from how they got a bicycle to fly

Clive Thompson
6 min readMay 15


Everyone knows the Wright Brothers were the first ones to figure out powered heavier-than-air flight — when their flyer took off on Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk.

But the lead-up to that breakthrough?

It is damn interesting, and chock full of deeply practical lessons about creativity, design and invention.

I got a close look at this a few days ago when — on my current cycling trip across the US — I stopped in Dayton, Ohio, the Wright Brothers’ home town. There’s a museum devoted to their experiments with their flyer, and another small one inside their original bike shop.

I spent the morning getting a tour of the bike shop, which documents just how deeply the brothers’ success with bicycles influenced their success with designing airplanes. I’d read about this before— including in David McCullough’s excellent 2015 book The Wright Brothers — but seeing it up close cemented some of these takeaways.

So forthwith, here are my Three Design Lessons From The Wright Brothers:

1) New ideas emerge from older ones

Years before they tried to design an airplane, the Wright Brothers had already mastered two tricky technical fields: Printing and bicycle-making. They ran a successful print shop in Dayton, which required them to deploy and maintain some of the most fiddly precision machinery of the day: Printing presses.

More importantly, they became adept at designing and building bicycles.

The “safety bicycle” was a high-tech marvel of the late 1890s. (That’s one of the brothers’ models above; I took the picture while visiting the museum.) With plump tires, an inner tube, a linked chain driving a geared back wheel, and a set of handlebars for steering, it was — for about a decade or so — the iPhone of late-19th-century America. People went nuts for them. It even spawned a massive industry in kewl add-ons: The Wrights made and sold everything from…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.