Lessons That Still Fly

Wilbur, right, and Orville Wright
Wilbur, right, and Orville Wright

Although it’s been more than a century since Wilbur and Orville Wright built and flew the world’s first successful airplane, their experience continues to influence and educate today’s entrepreneurs.

The importance of a good education is one of the lessons today’s entrepreneurs can learn from the Wright brothers, says Dean Alexander, superintendent of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.

Although neither Wilbur nor Orville Wright had a college or even a high school degree, they were relatively well educated for that time period, he said. Both attended high school during a time when most people did not, says Alexander.

“So compared to the average person on the street they were relatively well educated,” he says. “They had taken the requisite classes in mathematics … and it gave them the technical skills they needed.”

Another important lesson today’s entrepreneurs can learn from the Wright Brothers is to approach a problem in a scientific manner, says Alex Heckman, director of education and museum operations at Dayton History.

Today’s entrepreneurs can learn to take a logical, scientific approach to a problem, says Alexander. That was the key for the Wright brothers to unlock the secrets of sustained, controlled and powered heavier-than-air human flight, he says.

“They broke the problem down into a series of smaller problems and then solved those problems in a series, in sequence, which then allowed them to get to the finished product,” says Alexander. “Along the way they used both experimental technique, where they laboriously tried every airfoil shape until they got the best in their wind tunnel experiments,” he says, adding it was important to learn firsthand which wing shape was the best instead of relying on the lift and drag formulas of others.

Learn about the Wright brothers at the Aviation Trail Visitor Center and Museum.
Learn about the Wright brothers at the Aviation Trail Visitor Center and Museum.

“One thing that the Wright brothers experience tells us is that sometimes you have to question accepted principles,” Alexander says. Airfoil shapes that were accepted as fact at that time were, in fact, wrong.

“Rather than just continue to accept the wisdom that had been passed on they re-did the experiments and came up with different numbers which then resulted in a successful glider,” he says.

Today’s entrepreneurs can also learn the importance of ignoring the negative influences, says Heckman.

“(The Wright brothers) started what is today a multibillion-dollar industry, the aviation industry, and they did so in a climate in which many people were skeptical of their work,” he says. “Over half the population believed that their pursuit was misguided and was a folly and if humans were meant to fly we would have been born with wings on our back. So it’s easy to forget that it really wasn’t long ago that their entire business model was doubted by or completely believed to be a fraud by over half the population.”

Another lesson entrepreneurs can learn from the Wright brothers is to lean on their other experiences in life, says Alexander. The Wright brothers used their knowledge of building, repairing and riding bicycles when didyouknowdesigning their gliders and airplane.

“If you stop and think about it for a moment there’s a certain amount of commonality between a bicycle and an airplane,” Alexander says. “Both of them are inherently unstable. If you kind of stop what you’re doing and don’t put your foot on the ground or do something else, they fall down.”

More importantly, in order to turn a bicycle when traveling fast, the rider must lean into the turn, he says. The Wright brothers used that knowledge and experience to understand that in order to turn a flying machine it was necessary to roll the aircraft in the direction of the turn, which led them to develop their wing-warping design, Alexander says.

“So they were able to take that insight from their (bicycle building) experience and translate it into a more complicated machine,” he says.

Today’s entrepreneurs can also learn that it’s not always the amount of money that is spent on building a business that leads to success, says Heckman.

“(The Wright brothers) succeeded in building the world’s first successful airplane by spending less than $1,000 of their own money,” he says.

By comparison, one of the Wright brothers’ biggest competitors, Samuel P. Langley, who was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, spent roughly $70,000 of mostly public money in his failed effort to build a machine capable of controlled flight.

The Wright brothers succeeded not because of money, but because they persevered, he says. And when that perseverance, scientific research and experience finally pays off with a successful invention, today’s entrepreneurs need to learn from the Wright brothers that hiring a good patent lawyer is essential to protecting the future of the business, says Alexander.

The Wright brothers hired Ohio patent attorney Henry Toulmin, who created a broad and airtight patent that covered the method of controlling a flying machine, not the airplane itself.

“It was because their patent lawyer effectively patented three-axis control that the Wright brothers patent basically became bullet proof,” says Alexander.

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