Part II : 1950-1957

7. New Initiatives in High-Altitude Aircraft



What Went Wrong


[137] What went wrong in the Rae-Garrett-Air Force relationship? Lt. Col. Langdon F. Ayers, who was in the midst of the Rex events from beginning to end, summarized his view in August 1956. He saw Rex as the "classical example" of the problem of exploiting innovations. He believed that established, old-time engine companies were not likely to recognize or develop innovations because of vested interests. When an individual proposed a promising engine innovation, Ayers thought that the government should move the innovation, as fast as possible, to an established engine company and reward the inventor.62


With the perspective of time, it is easy to see the errors made on both sides, but what can we learn from them? How can promising innovations be nurtured until they develop into a benefit for both originator and sponsor? There are no easy answers, but a few observations can be made.


An idea or concept in itself is of little or no value until it is transformed into something people need or want. In our free enterprise system, an innovator must develop his idea or else seek a suitable sponsor who then takes the risk of development. The development of an innovation as complex as an aircraft engine or an airplane requires considerable capital for facilities, equipment, and operating funds. If a sponsor already has these and is willing to use them to develop an innovation, the [138] innovator has made a fortunate alliance. Rae's case is tragic in that he twice chose sponsors who did not have the capability to meet his goals. Summers Gyroscope was clearly not suitable for more than studies and small component work. Garrett was suitable for developing small machinery and was willing to invest some of its own capital to expand, but it looked to a sponsor of its own, the government, to provide additional facilities and a development contract. The government was interested in Rae's idea but was not willing to sponsor the development of a company to exploit it, especially when there were suitable companies available. The government's position was sound, but perhaps errors of judgment were made in encouraging Garrett and later, when a contrary view became prevalent, of not promptly informing the company. Perhaps Rae, as inventor, and Garrett, as a company ready to develop the invention, erred in seeking to make too big a step in the beginning. They seemed unaware of the danger of proposing larger and larger engines until they found themselves out of the ball park. The urgency felt by the Air Force to develop an airplane superior to the U-2 settled the matter.


How can the government benefit from the ideas of lone inventors'? This has been the subject of much study and a single case history can scarcely provide the answer. The Rex history does show, however, that the choice of a sponsor to exploit an innovation is all-important and that a goal may sometimes be reached better by a series of small steps rather than a gamble on one giant leap.