Inspiration for innovation

Looking backward helps to see forward that innovation is needed, and that innovation needs hard work and collaboration.


Did you know that Orville Wright was alive when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947? Imagine what he thought about that. And Chuck Yeager, who was born in 1923, 20 years after the Wright brothers broke the flight barrier in 1903, is still alive today—witnessing flight wonders upon wonders—moon landings, space shuttles, orbiting space stations, and unmanned space probes roving on planetary surfaces or hurtling billions of miles away from Earth.

What a legacy of innovation engineers today can be proud of and build upon. That legacy can be a tremendous source of inspiration-and a resource, too, as I recently found during a tour of what some call "the city of innovation"—the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit.

At the Henry Ford Museum, I was amazed, inspired, awed, humored, and humbled, and I learned to appreciate the history, future, and hard work of engineering and innovation. Here are just two of those lessons worth sharing:

1. Innovation is a collaborative effort

Starting my day at the birth of the automobile, I stood in front of the first attempts at our nation's obsession with traveling fast and far on four wheels. As I examined Karl Freidrich Benz's first gas-powered automobile, I realized that the car and associated paraphernalia were not a celebration of one man and one invention. There were many other innovators and cars sharing the spotlight.

Just two steps to my left was Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler's automobile built around the same time. As the first four-stroke engine, named the "Cannstatt-Daimler," this machine was beautiful, even elegant. And two more steps to the left was Charles and Frank's Duryea's automobile; a product of the brothers who established the first U.S. automobile-manufacturing facility.

In reading the display's many hand-written notes, 19th century leaflets, and periodicals of the era, I learned my first lesson of the day: innovation needs collaboration. While the ideas of individuals—Benz, Daimler, and the Duryeas—were crucial, it was the work of teams and their ideas that manifested initial concepts into working products. These teams didn't learn and work in a vacuum—they read and authored publications and participated in associations of their time. In doing so, they accelerated the pace, breadth, and depth of innovation. Today, engineers mirror this history of collaboration and sharing through the publications of your time-like Consulting-Specifying Engineer, and associations like ASHRAE, IEEE, and Society of Fire Protection Engineers.

2. Innovation is hard work

One gem of the Henry Ford Museum is its collection of the homes, buildings, and laboratories of some of the nation's greatest thinkers. Collected brick by brick—board by board, nail by nail—they populate a campus called Greenwood Village, a pastoral setting where patrons literally walk into the lives of those who toiled and dreamed as they worked to create what hadn't existed before.

Among these was the Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop of the Wright Brothers. As aviation pioneers, their innovations didn't happen by accident. They spent long hours, sometimes 16 to 20 hr/day, to figure out how machine-powered, human-controlled flight could happen.

Eventually, they conceptualized that the ability to steer a vehicle is vital to maintaining its equilibrium, leading to their three-axis control, which allowed a flight operator to steer with the purpose of maintaining the equilibrium of the plane in flight.

While standing in their bicycle shop, I learned about one of their co-conspirators, a shop employee named Charlie Taylor. He was the machinist who designed innovative engines from the Wright's baseline sketches. Again, innovation is a team effort with much hard work rolled in.

Amy Smith is academic dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, University of Phoenix. Courtesy: University of Phoenix

And then I came upon Thomas Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory, the innovation factory of the 19th century. Edison's lab is a shrine to the complexity, art, and craft of innovation—from whole rooms dedicated to blowing newly designed glass apparatuses for conducting scientific experiments to small corners where telephones were built for shipping all across the U.S. I stopped in awe at the three small ovens where lab workers would fail countless times at building a light filament that was sustainable.

In Wrights' bicycle shop and Edison's lab, I learned my second lesson of my day: innovation is hard work. Failure must be celebrated. To innovate, we have to learn all the time—and be resilient as we work against the status quo to make a better world.

Engineers, please continue this legacy of innovation through hard work and collaboration. You are needed, and celebrated.

Amy Smith is academic dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, University of Phoenix.

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