Historian David McCullough’s recent book about the Wright Brothers tells an absolutely necessary story for the internet age. I say so despite the fact that its principle characters were all largely gone from history before the 20th century was half over. In recording the lives of these two mild-mannered bicycle makers from the Midwest, Orville and Wilbur Wright, McCullough describes much that is instructive about the process of innovation, things that don’t seem to have changed in the last hundred years.
Then as now, change could come from anywhere. We often act surprised when market-shifting products—PC’s for instance, emerge from garages instead of laboratories. But it’s always been that way. The Wright’s built the first airplane with only the proceeds of their bicycle shop for support, and fared much better than competing projects heavily endowed by the military and the Smithsonian Institute. That lack of entanglement meant freedom to follow their own direction, all the way to its successful ends.
Celebrity too quickly accumulated for the inventors and their family, whether they wanted it or not. Wilbur and Orville both received parades and honors by the score. Their appearances drew thousands to see them, flying or not. We like innovation, not just because of what it does for us, but because of what it is. We rightly honor such successes.
Lastly, there did not seem to be any great clamor for the airplane before it emerged. Various crackpots attempted to fly, of course, with failures sometimes comical, sometimes tragic. But there was no general insistence that the airplane was necessary. Think about that for a moment. When you see a solution like the airplane, it is easy enough to define the problem: Goods and people need to move freely about the earth, regardless of what lies between departure and destination. Doing so creates liberty, and wealth, and safety. But take that solution out of the picture. Most simply accepted the limitations of the options already available. To whom had it occurred that the train and the ship were just not fast enough? Who had imagined getting across the country in a few hours instead of a week?
Even so, when the airplane was at last complete, a floodgate of imitators and complementary innovators swarmed over it. Having proved the thing could be done, the Wright Brothers had no need to convince anyone of its absolutely indispensability. There was life before the airplane and life after—for the Wright Brothers, and for the world.
We believe that, in the light of the solution that is the Paper Water Bottle, the problem of plastic Is very clear. Burying plastic in landfills might once have been our only option, but now we see things differently. We can meet the need more sustainably, use fewer scarce resources, and do more to sustain our environment than anyone thought possible before. That’s a refreshing alternative.