Repair Stories

The Wright Way: Repair Teaches Engineering

We’ve said it before: repair teaches engineering. During a recent trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., I was reminded just how much when I saw the Wright Flyer III: one of the greatest innovations ever born out of repair.

Considered the first airplane, the Wright Flyer III—built by Orville and Wilbur Wright—was a huge step towards modern flight (which seemed especially relevant as I was cruising back from D.C. at 36,000 feet). Of course, the Wright brothers were not the only ones to tackle early aeronautics, but their innovative techniques in engineering—including the Flyer III and first wind tunnel—came from their hands-on experience in repair.

Before becoming famous, the Wright brothers made their livings by manufacturing and repairing bicycles—pretty good business during the bicycle boom at the turn of the century. The revenue from their handiwork funded their experiments and the building of the Flyer.

The Wright brothers working on bike repair
Orville Wright (right) and Edwin H. Sines working in the Wright brothers bicycle shop. By Wright brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Each brother had a different skill set: Orville was the innovator and Wilbur was the thoughtful leader. But the repair skills both brothers gained in the bicycle business prepared them for one of the greatest engineering feats of the century.

Repair provides insight into the mechanism of devices. Handling parts gives users an idea of what the parts are capable of, if they can be improved, or if they can be repurposed entirely. The Wright brothers used bike wheels to build a wind tunnel. In fact, several bike repair concepts are mirrored in the Flyer: the Wright brothers used a variant of the sprocket drive chain—similar to the one you would find on a bicycle—to power the propellers.

As technology leaps ahead, it becomes harder to to understand how it all works. Repair bridges the gap. Sure, you can’t build a modern Boeing 747 based solely on the basic workings of a bicycle, but maybe what you learn in the middle of your bike repair will inspire you design something new, something better. It did for the Wright Brothers.

Not sure how to repair? Unlike Orville and Wilbur, you’re not flying blind. Whether you want to learn the inner-workings of the latest iPhone or fix a flat, we’ve got tons of guides and tools to help you on the path from repair tech to innovator—or at least get you flying back down a hill on your bike.