Saturday, July 4, 2009

Fliers or Liars: What the Wrights can teach us about the Weirs and EEStor

Note: It is excellent to observe important traditions on a yearly basis. Unfortunately, traditions are also very difficult to launch with any confidence in their longevity. For this blog, my tradition--that I am launching now-- will be to update the essay you are about to read every year on the 4th of July. I will do this in honor of EEStor's achievements...and also because I'm anxious to publish what is at this time still a rough draft (thank you blog genre). The sources for the following essay consist of a tour of a well known museum in Washington DC and interviews with 5+ persons familiar with EEStor's history.

Towards the end of the 19th century, toys began to emerge whose amusement value was based on the fact that they could fly. For thousands of years, humans had marvelled at flight and at this point in time, in North America, small toys were knocking on the door of human consciousness. Strikingly so. Two children in particular were able to allow their imaginations to be captured by the possibility of flight – human flight.


Almost 100 years later, two scientists were answering the call of their FREE nation to conceive of a satellite system whose existence would – like no other prior weapon, weapons program or system – provide protection to the free world; the foundation of human creativity and achievement. One of them was a successful Marine corps pilot familiar with the threats to freedom that perpetually gather up around the world. The shared determination of the pair in question was to use their intellectual gifts to preserve what they both considered sacred: freedom.

Like all successful projects of any complexity, this enterprise was broken up into sets of smaller problems such as that of creating a communication system which could enable multiple satellites to be aware, collectively, of the progress being made by inbound missiles. In the late 1980s, such a problem would require a great deal of data to be stored, processed and shared

among the team of satellites and those governing them from the ground. But even before sophisticated processing systems could be developed to tackle these problems, a seemingly mundane problem trumped them all: that of powering such a system to last long enough to be effective at the time it was needed. Unfortunately for this program, the solution to the energy storage problem would not emerge...leaving two men, Richard "Dick" Weir and Carl Nelson frustrated...but inspired.


The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a

machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers

or liars. It is difficult to fly. It is easy to say, "We have flown."

-New York

Feb 10, 1906

The names Orville and Wilbur Wright have a reputation that is untarnished, undisputed and beloved by all who reflect briefly on the existence of human flight ... much less, human activity in space. Quite an accomplishment for their particular human spirit which was originally inspired by nothing more than a childhood toy that the two continually destroyed through frequent play and rebuilt repeatedly via inspired ingenuity.

The Wright's status among the heroes of science was not always secure. In fact, it was vehemently debated to the extent that the tools of communication available 100 years ago enabled. The successes of the Wrights’ initial accomplishments were published in nothing more than a local beekeepers’ magazine (a blog of the day), having been rejected by Scientific American as being too far fetched. Despite this lack of mainstream media attention, accounts of their version of human flight did somehow make their way to Europe where they were contrasted with the ongoing failures there to move beyond simple gliding. The two bicycle manufacturers were ridiculed in print by the doubters.

“Fliers or Liars” read the headline from a 1906 article in the Paris edition of the New York Herald – in France the Wright brothers were widely dismissed as “les bluffeurs”. It is fair to say that human nature somehow always creates hysteria about people who claim to do something that has never been done before.

Some historians believe the Wrights relished the doubts, valuing the stealth it afforded them to discover and solve the key problems preventing human flight. While the rest of the world was focused on attacking flight with better and more powerful engines, the Wrights were innovating by creating the first wind tunnels to identify the most useful wing and craft designs. More importantly, unlike any of their peers, the Wrights were focused on enabling pilots to control flight – a problem whose resolution would not allow the others to be effectively tackled.


In the early 1990s, when the quest to fund a ballistic missile defense of the USA was losing political support, Weir and Nelson were taking stock of what remained of their defunct and failed project. Like geniuses whose accomplishments are rarely clouded by doubt, the two decided to one day discuss over breakfast the energy storage problem (and resolve it if their imaginations allowed it.) They chose a peculiarly American setting: a diner in San Jose, CA. Breakfast, lunch and dinner would be ordered in succession, and by the time the cleaning staff began its late-night work, shooing the two from their perch, the problem was solved.

Weir was the dreamer – the one whose sleep was often interrupted with creative eruptions that required him to grab pen and paper to document some new mechani

sm calling for his attention. Nelson was the MIT-trained materials scientist, a library of knowledge that could keep pace with Weir’s creativity by feeding it facts, identifying boundaries and people who could get things done. Between the two, a spark emerged – yes, on the very day they set out to solve the problem – that would 20 years later be knocking on the door of human consciousness in the internet blogosphere.


When the 1800s were coming to a close, the Wrights were enjoying successes that sprang from their mastery of the machinery of their day. Being newspaper men, they had worked with printing presses and other automation mechanisms. So it wasn’t long before they turned their attention to the emerging technology at that time: bicycles.

Imagine creating one of the first bicycles to achieve mass adoption. What do you focus on, and why? For the Wrights, it was almost intuitively obvious that propulsion was far less important than balance and control. Based on this, the Wrights designed and manufactured bicycles whose speed and control were unparalleled.

It was no wonder then that the Wrights’ initial exposure to attempts to achieve human flight (via accounts of gliding in various periodicals) quickly honed in on the importance of balance and control, something their contemporaries had largely ignored. The Wrights saw the opportunity, and used the trial and error experience they gained from designing bikes to tackle flight.

Innovating not simply by enabling heavier-than-air flight, the Wrights were studying aerodynamics with their ground-breaking wind tunnels. Their field tests revealed that the accepted data of the day regarding lift was incorrect. Later, their insights on wing design would guide their design of propellers – without which even the most light and powerful engine would be rendered useless. Yet their contemporaries conceived of the problem of flight as being largely that of propulsion. They were wrong.

When the Wrights achieved some of their initial success, what happened next has been debated to this day. Some believe the Wrights’ success was not something they wanted to trickle out. Others believe they were not so reflective. Under either view, we know that a public demonstration was planned in their home in Ohio which went so poorly that the reporters called to document it lost interest in their project.

This cloud of suspicion leaked out and for the key times when the Wrights were innovating, testing and building they were largely left alone. When they emerged from stealth, however, they were not just confident but cocky – ready to demonstrate ONLY AFTER having a signed contract in place with any would be customers such as the US or French governments.


After the initial theories concerning this new form of energy storage were smoothed out, Dick Weir asked a Silicon Valley friend whose company possessed fabrication equipment to let him test out some of his theories. For 6 months, prototypes were built and prototypes were tested in a friend's lab--at night when the facilities were not in use. Nelson and Weir chronicled the data produced by their successes, data which later found its way into patents that are today so hotly debated.

After hours and on borrowed time, Nelson and Weir slowly perfected what would today be known as an EESU component – a unit of storage, which, in groups of 31,000, would achieve 52kWH of storage able to charge and discharge at electro

nic speeds. The storage puzzle was complete, but a new problem emerged: the integrated circuitry required to bring the storage system together was EXPENSIVE. In fact it was a deal breaker. Weir and Nelson stuck their tails between their legs and went and got jobs, later forming new businesses. Weir never let the dream die completely, however. Over the years, he pursued funding from gov't agencies he felt could afford the expensive circuitry required--but was turned down in large part due to some hysterical consultants hired to evaluate his claims. But, the impracticality of the supporting technology would not allow the project to go forward. Not yet anyway.


A difficult thing to understand happened after the Wrights achieved early success with their field testing in North Carolina. They decided to take their project completely underground. So for two years--even though they were achieving great things in private- they performed no public flights. The value of their achievement was not difficult to estimate, and they began working closely with a patent attorney named Harry Aubrey Toulmin Sr., who would write for them the flying machine patent application that would later be granted to the two inventors.

When the Wrights were at a point where they were ready to trade dollars for flight, they took a rather unfriendly approach to the vultures who had begun to circle them. To their would-be financiers they had a simple offer: a signed contract or no demonstration. Their stubbornness extended even to their own government, and that of France.

By this time, their claims regarding flight were too difficult to keep completely under wraps and the thinkers, engineers and press of the day began to write and discuss whether or not they could really do what they claimed. For their part, the Wrights of course knew they could. But they fought off the desire to win the argument in favor of their long-term interests. These interests were eventually served well at a time of the Wright's

choosing and under the inventors' terms.


At the turn of the century, in the 2000-20001 time frame, innovations in integrated circuitry and power electronics caught the attention of Dick Weir. The miniaturization of such technology had occurred and it was precisely what was required to realize the promise of the discoveries he worked out years before in the friend's lab. As a result, Weir went back to work to bring the EESU forward. Starting first with funding, Weir hit the VC circuit with the story of his discoveries and details around the power electronics innovations that would make it a reality. He described his plan and eventually won funding to pursue it. Carl Nelson re-entered the picture and after some extensive planning EEStor Inc. began in mid 2006 to build out a production capability in Cedar Park, TX. Three years later, they are on the brink of announcing not simply the 3rd party validation of their energy storage claims but rather the ability to mass produce in enormous quantities the energy storage technology that 100 yrs from now, someone will be comparing to the next generation of innovation.

“If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.”

Orville Wright