Built to Rebuild

In 1959, a wealthy English industrialist named Henry Kremer established a £350,000 prize for the first person that could develop a human powered airplane that could fly a figure eight course around two markers spaced a half a mile apart. Several attempts had been made in the early part of the century but no one could develop an airplane that could travel any significant distance. Over the eight years, several more groups would make attempts without success.

At this point, the Kremer Prize was only open to the British, but in 1967 Kremer raised the prize to £500,000 and opened the competition to all nationalities. Ten more years passed before someone would pass Kremer’s challenge and complete the course with a plane powered by a human.

You probably know the winner more by his creations than his name. On August 23, 1977, The Gossamer Condor was the first human powered aircraft to complete the course. The larger Gossamer Albatross followed two years later with a successful flight across the English Channel and won a second Kremer Prize. This inventor’s work later shifted to solar powered aircraft with the creation of the Gossamer Penguin, the Solar Challenger, and NASA’s Helios Prototype.

Behind these marvels is a man named Paul MacCready and given it took over twenty years for someone to create the machine to accomplish the Kremer’s original challenge, it would seem proper to ask what was remarkable about MacCready.

First, MacCready was motivated. In this case, he needed the money. He was the guarantor on a loan on a family member’s failed business and was in need of $100,000 to repay the bank, but what was truly unique about MacCready was his approach to the work.

The teams who had attempted to create human powered aircraft all used the same approach. They would plan, conject, and theorize for a year and then build a machine that contained all of their assumptions. During shortly into the first test flight, those assumptions would come crashing down to the ground and the process would repeat.

As Aza Raskin and Alan Kay tell the story, MacCready’s radical approach was to build a prototype that could be quickly modified and rebuilt. His plane could be fixed in hours and the new assumptions could tested again the same day. With this approach, MacCready solved the twenty year old challenge and the age old dilemma of human powered flight in six months.

So, what happens when we can build things that can easily rebuild?

In my essay The Paperless Book, I lament the paradigm that governs our view of the book, the way it paralyzes the ability for the concept of a book to evolve.

Books aren’t built to be rebuilt. Authors labor in their sheds and their untested assumptions cause so many books to come crashing down from the sky. There is a better way.

I just finished a new chapter for Every Book Is a Startup called Minimum Viable Publishing. It will be added to the project in a few weeks and it will be my first attempt to get at the benefits of being able to test your assumptions and rebuild books as you create them.

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