The Flight of Autodidactism: The Wright Brothers

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When we think of the Wright Brothers, its easy to remember that they were the team responsible for the world’s first functioning airplane.  It is worth it to pause and look at the way each brother came to become some of the world’s greatest innovators with their invention.  You can probably guess what it is that made them capable of their achievement: autodidactism, of course!

By definition, innovators are people who pave a path that hasn’t been taken before.  As such, a formal education could have only gone so far for Orville and Wilbur Wright.  What they needed was a desire to learn on their own beyond the limits of school – a trait that both had in abundance.

 

Wilbur Wright

The older and more responsible of the two brothers, Wilbur was a well-rounded child with a lot of focus and dedication.  He was an avid athlete growing up and did well in his classes.  In fact, he was going to go to Yale after finishing high school.  Just before leaving, a hockey accident caused Wilbur to loose his front teeth. Although his injury was more harmful cosmetically than physically, the loss of his teeth delivered a heavy blow to Wilbur’s confidence, causing him to become more withdrawn.  Shortly after, his family’s quick move to Ohio from Indiana resulted in Wilbur never receiving his high school diploma.  These two incidents combined prevented him from attending Yale.

Wilbur’s dedication and ambition began to dwindle a bit at this point and he took a break of sorts for the next few years, helping his mother at home and father at his Church.  The big turn-around in his life came when Orville (who was five years younger) caught up in age and drew Wilbur into his own endeavors.

 

Orville Wright

Orville was always a mischievous child who was constantly getting caught and into trouble.  Largely different from his brother, he had very little interest in school and dropped out after his Junior year in high school to start his own printing business.  He pulled Wilbur into this business as well, extracting him from the rut in which his injury had placed him.

Taking on a leadership position over his brother, Orville led his newspaper to becoming a daily print and eventually turned to commercial printing.  Ever the entrepreneur, Orville went on to capitalize on the biking craze and opened a bike repair shop with Wilbur taking more of a partnership position.

 

Two Heads are Better Than One

Their bicycle repair shop is where most of their autodidactism occurred – at least in terms of the skills they later used to build the first functional airplane.  At the same time, during the mid 1890s, there was an increase in global interest in aeronautics.  Flying high due to the success of their shop, the Wright Brothers decided to take part in the craze.

Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Museum to request some of the more recent publications about aeronautics and the brothers began essentially teaching themselves aerodynamic engineering, building only on the knowledge of mechanics they had amassed from building their bike shop.

The rest is history as Orville and Wilbur began their experimentations and failed every time, filing for patents in aerodynamics along the way.  Eventually, they successfully developed the world’s first human flying machine in 1903.

 

Their work was surrounded by controversy and questions about their legitimacy, but regardless of all that, the Wright Brothers successfully pushed forward the concept of an airplane – an invention that the modern world probably couldn’t exist as it is without.  What’s more impressive, however, is the fact that Orville and Wilbur both managed to teach themselves the aerodynamics of the time and rose up as the world’s foremost engineers without so much as a high school diploma.  Autodidactism at its core, people!

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