Today’s inspiration: Otto Lilienthal

Is it heresy to suggest that Otto Lilienthal may be more important to the history of aviation than the famed Wright Brothers? Particularly troublesome this suggestion may be, given the fact that I am scribing this a mere ferry ride (or two, to be technical) from the famed Kill Devil Hills?

Alas, I am truly inspired by Otto the Great…and other innovators who posthumously rest in the background of more famed followers.

Otto: Wright Brothers. Tesla: Edison. New Albion: Sierra Nevada.

This is not to undermine the great accomplishments of the Wright Brothers, Edison, or Sierra Nevada. It’s just that they’re all so well known and documented. I find the obscure stories of the faded pioneers infinitely more interesting.

Rarely is the true innovator an avid self-promoter. Their dedication to the invention usurps the desire to talk about it. I say this with a healthy dose of self-awareness, as I blog and muse about Fullsteam’s progress and inspiration. We all know our roles: I am the talker, Lee the master, Chris the craftsman. I accept I am not a mad genius; Fullsteam does not need a third.

The World’s First Aviator,” Otto Lilienthal, pursued flight in an era where the common man, the politician, and the reporter snickered at the thought. The ubiquitous public derision toward the notion of flying machines merely inspired him — as it does most geniuses. Lilienthal’s accomplishments include 2,000 glider flights, advancements in aerodynamic principles, progressive employee-ownership practices, steam engine inventions, and even a children’s building block set still manufactured to this day. Lilienthal set forth in motion the future of flight, yet most of us have never heard of him.

Otto the Great’s final flight ended in tragedy. On August 9, 1896, a gust of wind broke his glider’s upper wing, leading to a free fall of 40 feet. Otto the Great died the next day. His final words: “Opfer mussen gebracht werden” (“Sacrifices must be made.”)

And so, as the common man argues whether Ohio or North Carolina deserve preferential ownership of the Wright Brothers’ great accomplishments, let us step back from the foolish pursuit of preeminence. Today, we honor Otto the Great.

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