Overdrive Extra

Jack Roberts

Staying in the race

| October 30, 2012

When you mention trucks to somebody outside of this industry, the first image that usually comes to their minds is a “Mack Truck;” a big, primitive, lumbering, decidedly low-tech brute of a machine that lasts for years before finally falling apart in a noisy cloud of rust and soot.

That’s not reality, though, is it? Mack Trucks today are some of the most advanced and superbly-engineered commercial vehicles on the planet. They have to be. There’s no choice. In today’s trucking industry, the competition is simply too fierce. Take your foot off the pedal — even for an instant — and you’ll be left in the dust.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. In years past there were a great many truck manufacturers that hit on a successful design and rode it for years – for decades in more than a few instances. There were enhancements and upgrades along the way of course (now with AM and FM radio!). But the world — and the trucking industry — were very different then. There just wasn’t a pressing need to spend vast sums of time and money constantly developing new vehicles. The market didn’t demand it and the quantum leaps in design and technology were too far apart to justify it anyway.

Surprisingly, the very human instinct to err toward complacency has hampered, or even ruined, the careers of many famous inventors, designers and manufacturers in our history. Even great men held up as American icons weren’t immune to the problem.

For example, everybody knows Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the airplane. But after a brief flurry of activity early in the century they were essentially done. They set up a business to manufacture airplanes, and as late as 1910 had a virtual monopoly on the technology required for human flight. But by 1920, they were out of the airplane manufacturing business entirely — their designs having been long-since bypassed by larger, faster, higher-flying airplanes.

What happened? In the Wrights’ case it was greed. While they get just credit for developing the basic science of flight, their ace-in-the-hole was figuring out a way to control an airplane once it was actually up in the air.

In spite of all the people all around the world working on flying machines, this was a problem that hadn’t occurred to anyone else. In fact, it was generally assumed that once you managed to get a machine off the ground, controlling it would be a lot like riding a horse: You’d lean forward to go down, lean to the right to go right and so on.

The Wrights, realizing this was rubbish, spend untold hours studying seagulls and other birds in flight and realized they controlled themselves by changing the shapes of their wings to disrupt airflow. The Wrights mimicked this approach in their “wing-warping” control system. They also patented the idea and vigorously sued anybody they caught trying to copy it.

As it happened, flying was a pretty big deal. Everybody wanted in on the game. Which meant that instead of keeping up with what was already a fast-moving technological race, the Wrights began to focus all their time and energy on legal matters.

Meanwhile, another aviation pioneer, Glenn Curtiss, decided that if he couldn’t use wing-warping (the Wrights sued him, too) he’d do an end-run around the patent and develop his own control system. That approach, called “ailerons,” proved to be a much better system than the Wrights’ and is still in use today.

Meanwhile, by the time the brothers gave up on their lawsuits, they realized they’d been completely left in the dust in terms of aviation design. The engine company they founded continued to do business up until the jet age (a Wright engine powered The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic Ocean), but the Wrights never built another airplane.

Henry Ford came dangerously close to suffering a similar fate. But Ford’s problem was that he was a victim of his own success.