Last month’s Chabot enrichment speaker was W. David Schwaderer, a 30-year computer industry veteran who regularly lectures in Silicon Valley on the subject of innovation. He took volunteers and their guests through the Voyager Aircraft initiative, where a plane designed by inventors Burt and Dick Rutan circled the world without refueling, from the initial concept development on a restaurant napkin to the weather-beaten fuselage’s final resting place in the Smithsonian. This talk introduced the ideas in Schwaderer’s upcoming book on idea development,Innovation Survival – Concept, Courage, Chance and Change, and gave Chabot’s docents a better idea of the complicated process behind the discovery of many of the scientific concepts we showcase.
Schwaderer started his talk with a reminder to us to think outside the box and not get limited by stereotypical concepts. For example, there’s no reason why a hairdryer couldn’t have been invented and marketed as a mirror defogger. And, he pointed out the different and sometimes complementary personalities of brothers Dick and Burt Rutan, one an Air Force pilot who enjoys daring acrobatics and the other an engineer and tinkerer who loves to build new and different types of crafts. It can take a wide variety of personalities and skills to execute a large project, as he further illustrated through the cliche that for every new plane with a pilot and copilot aboard, there are another hundred people on the ground who were also vital to the flight.
The very idea of an around-the-world flight on a single tank of gas may have been inspired as a distraction during a time of failure and conflict between the Rutan brothers. Schwaderer alluded to a moment when one took the other for lunch and drew notes on a paper napkin. Their initial design for the plane involved much careful thought and hard work but still required radical revision as it did not have enough fuel capacity. Changes had to be made to the structure and wing shape and the rear engine was redesigned to have less horsepower but require significantly less fuel. Also, the Voyager team found that some very efficient Hartzell metal propellers were even better than the lightest wood ones because the increase in efficiency more than compensated for the greater weight.
Other modifications had to occur for unforeseen problems, including undamped wing oscillation (flopping, wiggly wings) when the plane exceeded a certain speed, terrible turning capacity and dragging wing tips when the plane was heavy with fuel, asymmetric handling, lack of pitch control, motor failure, and even that some commonly accepted engineering equations related to cooling gave a 50 percent error at low speeds and could not adequately predict plane component behavior. All of this unpredictable happenstance resulted in the craft taking 72 months rather than the expected year to build. Their expected funding also fell through, leaving them to bootstrap a $2 million project by scrounging and soliciting small donations, including $3 in an envelope from one gentleman who loved aviation enough to skip his lunch for their sake.
Flying the plane proved just as difficult as designing and building a craft that could get off the ground. Loud engine noise interfered with hearing and sleep, precious fuel leaked out of the plane, and parts of the wings fell off during flight, increasing drag by six percent. The exhausted Dick Rutan and his girlfriend Jeana Yeager nearly flew into a mountain. The altitude impeded the pilots’ sense of taste and thirst, leaving them with less critical thinking ability and slowed response times from hunger and dehydration. All of that, in addition to autopilot fails, leaking coolant and a typhoon, made the flight extremely dangerous. At one tense moment, air bubbles stopped an engine, causing the plane to lose power. Mission control on the ground advised Dick Rutan, who was at the controls at that time, to rely on his front engine. When the front engine worked, he became so excited that he pulled back on the stick, at which point the air bubbles rose to the top of the liquid fuel, and the rear engine worked again.
Finally, on December 23, 1986, the Voyager landed on a long runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert, greeted by hordes of media covering the triumphal event. The remains of the plane now rest, uncleaned and unrepaired, in the Smithsonian, in a fittingly honest tribute to the difficult and uncertain nature of the entire project.
Schwaderer used the Rutans’ and Jeana Yeager’s experience with Voyager to illustrate the often chaotic process of bringing forth and shaping new ideas. As Burt Rutan explains, there is a difference between a fresh concept that’s often radically modified as it gets hatched out of the embryonic design stages and a finely honed consumer product or service where inventors are modifying details to improve quality or reduce cost.
A fresh concept can also come with a social cost, as in another case study in Schwaderer’s book, that of J. Harlen Bretz, a geologist who was absolutely sure, based on his best interpretation of the physical evidence around him, that there had been a massive lake in the distant past in his home state of Washington, in an area known as the Scablands. Unluckily for Bretz, his observation and inference happened to run against the popular thinking in geology at the time, which focused on uniform, gradual changes rather than sudden catastrophes. However, decades later, researchers looked again at the Scablands and realized that while the state was covered by glaciers, a huge chunk of ice most likely formed a dam that created a huge lake. The failure of the ice dam after some time would have led to a major flood, explaining the features Bretz had observed. Happily in this case, Bretz lived to see his ideas vindicated and to receive a special commendation from major geological societies.
Schwaderer’s upcoming book contains several such examples and he had to choose only one due to our limited time for his lecture. I look forward to reading the entire book at some point when it comes out.
As a small business manager, much of what Schwaderer had to say about pursuing new ideas rang true for me. We’ve had plenty of moments where it seemed as if ‘pieces were falling off of our wings,’ and other moments of exhilaration and unexpected survival by the skin of our teeth. What stuck with me about this talk was the need to revise one’s definition of success when developing and executing a truly original idea and embrace quite a bit of messiness and a state of constant revision and experimentation throughout the process.