Race to Saturn

The power of iteration

Audio Version of this Surge:

Power of Iteration, Draft Version 1 (posting in the spirit of sharing work in progress)

Written Version:

In his book Effortless, Greg McKeown tells the story of the quest for the first human powered aircraft. It’s a story about the power of iteration—the power of progress over perfectionism.

Here’s the story:

In 1959 there was an industrialist in the UK named Henry Kremer. Kremer wanted more innovation in humans taking to the sky. So he offered a price of 5,000 pounds for the first human-powered aircraft that could fly a half-mile course. Human powered flight would be flight without engines, so something like a bike with wings.

But years went by, and no one was able to do it. In 1973, Kremer raised the prize amount to 50,000 pounds. Teams came to compete with lots of funding, institutional support, and beautiful looking aircraft. But they all still failed.

Then came along Paul MacCready, an engineer from the U.S. And he realized that everyone was trying to solve the wrong problem.

The other teams had been trying to figure out how to build the best aircraft. MacCready realized that the right problem was:

How can you build something that you can crash cheaply and relaunch fast.

With that, MacCready didn’t need—or even want—the most expensive and best looking materials. He wanted something he could build fast, crash, improve, and try again. Tape and broom handles would do.

So, his competitors would take six months to build and test a new version. MacCready would take a few hours for his process. Fly, crash, fix, and try again.

This enabled him to go through 222 versions before the version that worked, when he won the prize on August 23, 1977 with his Gossamer Condor.

By the way, Kremer then set a higher prize of 100,000 pounds for a human powered aircraft that could fly from England and France. MacCready and his Gossamer Condor won that prize too, on June 12, 1979.

Greg McKeown says it well:

“Making failure as cheap as possible is key for making progress on the things that are essential to you.”

Here’s Greg McKeown talking about it on The Next Big Idea podcast:

And here’s a 4 minute video showing the Gossamer Condor in action: