Innovation from the Summer of 1927 – Part I

by Scott Bowden

Innovation from the Summer of 1927 – Part I - Innovation ExcellenceAs the summer of 2016 draws to a close after Labor Day weekend, I’d like to reflect back on an amazing summer nearly 90 years ago. Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927 takes a whirlwind tour through a series of major events that occurred in the summer of 1927 which saw events ranging from Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic Ocean to the coming of age of radio broadcasting to the launch of television. As Bryson takes us through that eventful summer, I was struck by how many lessons could be derived for the modern innovator from these stories from nearly a century ago. This first part focuses on Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. Future articles will focus on sports and other technologies from the summer of 1927.

Anyone who has walked through the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and has seen the Spirit of St. Louis hanging from the ceiling has marveled at how a small, single-engine plane with no front windshield was able to make it successfully across the vast Atlantic Ocean where so many others had failed.  Bryson summarized the challenges facing Lindbergh in the paragraph below:

He was clearly just a boy. He had no relevant experience. His plane had no radio and a single engine – Byrd insisted on having three – and had been built by a company no one had ever heard of.  Lindbergh planned to carry no lifeboat and almost no backup supplies.  Above all, he proposed to go alone, which meant flying a difficult and unstable plane for a day and a half through storm and cloud and darkness while intricately balancing the flow of fuel through five tanks governed by fourteen valves, and navigating his way across a void without landmarks. When he needed to check his position or log a note, he would have to spread his work out on his lap and hold the stick between his knees; if it was nighttime he would have to grip a small flashlight between his teeth. Taken together, these were jobs that would test a crew of three.  Anyone who knew flying knew that this was more than any one person could do.  It was madness.  Several newspapermen tried to talk Lindbergh out of his suicidal ambition, but to no avail.

Lindbergh did have an advantage, though, that was not readily apparent at the time. Bryson notes:

The American fliers also had an advantage over their European competitors that nobody yet understood: they all used aviation fuel from California, which burned more cleanly and gave better mileage.  No one knew what made it superior because no one yet understood octane ratings – that would not come until the 1930s – but it was what got most American planes across the ocean while others were lost at sea.

So why did Lindbergh succeed where so many others had failed?  High octane fuel was clearly a technological edge that he enjoyed.  For the innovator, the lesson here is to examine every aspect of a challenge, especially vis-à-vis one’s competitors, to search for any possible edge one might have, even if that edge is not readily apparent.  Aviators attempting to fly from Europe to America focused on the prevailing headwinds that made their flights more difficult though, in fact, their disadvantage stemmed from their fuel as well as the winds.  An innovator should dig deeply into a challenge and make sure all possible angles are examined in looking for an advantage.

Another reason Lindbergh succeeded stemmed from the simplicity of his operation. At a time when other aviators were building larger planes with multiple engines, multiple radios, 3-person crews, and lots of emergency supplies, Lindbergh kept his plane light and simple. Lindbergh supposedly even trimmed the edges off his maps to reduce any and all extra weight before his flight. Simple, laser-like focus on an objective and avoidance of distractions can be an advantage for a modern innovator as well.

In addition, as Alex Spencer of the National Air and Space Museum notes, “Lindbergh didn’t want an innovative plane […h]e wanted nothing but tried and tested technology.” Lindbergh was going to be the first to cross the Atlantic, but he didn’t want to rely on “first” or cutting-edge technology to do so. Although his air-cooled Pratt & Whitney engine was a new design, other aspects of his aircraft and mission stuck to simple, tried-and-true technologies and methods.  For the modern innovation practitioner, one should think about how to achieve innovative goals using basic technology and approaches. We’re often tempted to try to solve problems with the latest and greatest technology, but that sometimes creates more problems that can distract from the larger objective.

After completing his successful flight, Lindbergh became an international sensation and, albeit reluctantly, started a multi-city tour across the U.S., finding huge crowds wherever he went. Although Lindbergh quickly grew tired of his fame and the crush of attention he was receiving, the impact of his tour was greater than anyone could imagine, which Bryson describes as follows:

His tour, however, was having a much greater effect than he probably realized.  Papers everywhere lovingly recorded his flying times between cities: Grand Rapids to Chicago, 2 hours 15 minutes; Madison to Minneapolis, 4 hours; St. Louis to Kansas City, 3 hours 45 minutes.  For anyone who had ever traveled between any such pairs of places, these were magical times.  Moreover, Lindbergh repeated these feats day after day, safely, punctually, routinely, without fuss or sweat, as if dropping in by air were the most natural and sensible way in the world to arrive at a place.  The cumulative effect on people’s perceptions was profound.  By the end of the summer, American was a nation ready to fly.

For the innovator, the lesson here is to think about the broader context when one is engaged in presenting an innovation to a broader audience.  Although on the surface Lindbergh’s tour was all about his past innovation (the trans-Atlantic crossing), the actual effect of the tour was to show the ease of air travel. In other words, there was a secondary impact from the initial innovation that was even more consequential to the future than the initial effort.

Source: Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927 (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.


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