Why R&D investments are worth it: a story of the early aviation industry

2020-05-20, by Marc-Antoine Beaudoin

In this article, I demonstrate how research and development activities strengthen a nation. I will do so through a story about the beginning of aviation. You will understand why the Wright brother's reign came to end, and how a Canadian aeronautical engineer turned out to be a key contributor in the fight against the Luftwaffe. I want to draw your attention to the general attitude that our various protagonists have toward R&D activities, and how this affected their respective outcomes in this story.

At the turn of the 20th century, two major breakthroughs happened in aviation: the Wright brothers flew the world’s first flight in December 1903, and the German scientist Ludwig Prandtl introduced his boundary layer theory in 1904, just bit later. The first event made the newspaper, but the second did not. Prandtl’s boundary layer theory was equally a big deal as the Wright Flyer, however. His theory provided the equations to understand important phenomena, like aerodynamic stall – i.e. when a pilot tries to climb so fast that the plane starts to fall out of control. One thing we can notice from this timeline is that, clearly, the Wright brothers didn’t need Prandtl’s equations to invent their flying machine.

Indeed, all the Wright brothers needed was the general notion of lift and drag, their garage wind tunnel, a lot of trial and error, and a spark of ingenuity for thinking of a clever way to control an aircraft. While this was sufficient for the world’s first flight, it was not sufficient to provide pilots a safe and reliable plane. One of their later designs, the Model C, had such a strong tendency to nose drive that it killed many test pilots. It turned out, quite obviously, to be a difficult sell. So far, this series of events is typical of early technology development: an intuitive invention happens first, and it’s only later that science shows up and tells you why the invention worked and how you could improve it next time.

However, improving on their design wasn’t on the Wright brother’s agenda. Instead, they focused on protecting their patent rights and sued virtually every company that flew over the United-Stated around that time. This strategy drained their budget and allegedly hindered aviation progress in the U.S. as a whole, as it scared away potential competitors. So much so, that when World War I happened, the U.S. forces had to buy French airplanes.

Meanwhile the European landscape was very different. In 1908, Prandtl received funding from the German government to create the Modellversuchsanstalt (MVA), a research institute where academics and industrialists could cooperate to investigate properties of flying devices. Aerodynamic theories advanced at a great pace – Prandtl and his students were first to explain why birds fly in V formations, and why golf balls with dimples travel farther. This work rapidly translated into practical implications for plane designs. The Germans were the first to realize that the key to faster aircrafts is to reduce drag, not to make them lighter. This helped motivate the switch from the conventional biplane architecture – when a plane has two wings stacked on to of each other – to the now ubiquitous monoplane architecture. The major lesson was that the struts and wires required in biplane designs caused a lot of drag, regardless of how thin they were. Counterintuitively perhaps, it became evident that getting rid of an entire wing was preferable. In this fashion, aircraft designs started to change quickly in Europe.

When the American naval officer Jerome Hunsaker returned from a tour of European research facilities in 1913, he acknowledged that “We are at the point where the inventor can lead us but little further, and it is to the physicist and the engineer that we must look for perfection of air craft and the development of a new industry”. Thus, it was with the intention of catching up with the European aeronautical expertise that in 1915, the American government founded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – NASA’s ancestor. It is worth repeating: NASA, the first organization to step foot on the moon, the hallmark of space science and engineering, was originally conceived to catch up on European aeronautical engineering. It goes to show that a humble start does not foreclose great success.

The Americans went even further in their efforts to get up to speed: they collaborated with the Germans. After 1918, the Treaty of Versailles banned Germany from manufacturing motorized airplanes, so Prandtl’s research funding suffered substantially. The Americans then paid Prandtl half a year’s worth of salary to write a report on the state of knowledge in aeronautical research in Germany. Prandtl was quite happy to do so and he continued to collaborate with the U.S. for several years. The Americans also recruited Prandtl’s former PhD students to high positions in American research institutes. One of them was Max Munk. Hired in 1921, Munk was to lead the development of wind tunnels at NACA. This controversial hiring process ultimately required two signatures from no less than the U.S. President. Surely, there was some friction. For instance, NACA engineers often complained about Munk’s arrogant attitude. He considered the American culture to be “somewhat retarded” – which he noted in a letter to Prandtl – so you can only imagine what it was to work for him. But the NACA administration was firm in that Munk’s directives were to be followed.

While the U.S. were developing their collective expertise in aeronautical engineering, a Canadian engineer was forging one of his own. Beverly Shenstone graduated from the University of Toronto with a graduate degree in aeronautical engineering in 1929. He then went on to work at Junker, a German aircraft company. This rare opportunity exposed him to advanced aeronautical techniques and theories, expanding his own knowledge and network altogether. He even met Prandtl at some point and also visited NACA. Due to his extended experience and knowledge, he was eventually hired by the British aircraft company Supermarine to provide “external perspective”.

Such was the state of aeronautical engineering at the eve of World War II. Collective and individual efforts to develop expertise meant that the science and techniques required to develop state-of-the-art aircrafts just had time to spread around the world. So, when Prandtl began to work with the Nazi party and helped fuel their propaganda (I’m sorry if you started to like this Prandtl guy), the rest of the world was ready to respond. Supermarine released the Spitfire just in time to fight the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and win the Battle of Britain in 1940. The Spitfire combined with the British radar system were the two technological landmarks credited for keeping Germany out of Britain – essentially changing the fate of the world. The irony of it all is that the Spitfire had a very distinctive elliptical wing shape, which gave rise to its great combat ability. At Supermarine, this idea was put forward by Shenstone; but in reality, it was not his. Prandtl and Munk theoreticized that an elliptical wing is a very effective way to minimize induce drag (albeit not the only way), and they published the idea in a German paper back in 1918. Shenstone didn’t have to come up with the idea himself; someone of his background just had to be exposed to the idea and would know what to do with it.

Fast forward almost a century; what should we learn from this story? If you are a business owner like the Wright brothers, I hope you remember to keep your feet moving. Being first to invent something or being the current market leader won’t ensure future success. I think Clayton Christensen had way more to say on this subject that I do (see The Innovator’s Dilemma, for instance). But what I would add is that it matters beyond the business success: it affects the nation you’re operating in. The Wright brother’s business decisions affected the U.S.’s state of knowledge in aeronautical engineering as a whole. Proponents of the Open Innovation approach probably rejoice reading these lines. But as with everything else in life, I believe there is a fine balance between secrecy and openness. One thing is less debatable, however, and it is that we must think beyond the walls of our businesses.

If you are a government leader, you have to make sure your nation invests properly in R&D activities. This means creating and properly funding institutes like the MVA, where university researchers and businesses can cooperate easily. It also means that you must invest massively in catching up with the current world leaders in all sorts of narrow scientific fields. The case is easy to make in terms of defence capabilities – just imagine what the world would be if the British and the Americans had decided that they could rely on France to provide them with airplanes. But I believe it is equally applicable to keeping the economy afloat. Is it safe to assume that a nation trailing behind technologically also trails behind economically?

If you are a world leading researcher, well, keep on world leading. But maybe be mindful of who you associate yourself with.

What I like the most about this story is that you don’t necessarily have to be a world leading researcher or head of NASA to contribute to your nation. If, like Shenstone, you are simply an engineer working in a company, I also believe you bear great responsibility. It is to keep yourself informed with the latest R&D advances, and implement these new technologies in your field or work. Hopefully, you work in an environment that fosters this kind of exploration.

I will admit that investing time, effort, and resources in R&D activities can be scary. You may not know when or even if it will pay off. And the hard truth is that most of the time, it won’t. But when it does, it may just be what keeps your business/economy/career afloat ten years down the line. I’m pretty sure Supermarine never thought they would end up building 20,351 Spitfires when they hired Shenstone to show them some German tricks. I suppose that’s the beauty with R&D. It is messy, unpredictable, yet crazily influential. But hey, how about another hard truth: if you don’t play, you can’t win.

P.S. How are we doing, in Canada?

It seems we are swimming against current in terms of R&D activities. Every year the Canadian government and businesses combined invest $35 billion in research and experimental development, which represents 1.6% of the country’s GDP. While you may think it’s a lot, be warry. On average the OECD countries invest more around 2.4% of their GDP in research. And what’s worst is that on the turn of the millennium, we invested a higher percentage, 2.0%, while the OECD average was at 2.15%. Since then it’s been a linear decline for us, and a linear increase for the OECD countries. Of course, these are all pre-COVID numbers. My hope is to see R&D activities act as a catalyst to economic growth – not simply a luxury that we can only afford when money is rolling.


Ackroyd, J., 2013. The Spitfire Wing Planform: A Suggestion. Journal of Aeronautical History 121–135.

Council of Canadian Academies, 2018. Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada. Ottawa.

Eckert, M., 2006. The dawn of fluid dynamics: a discipline between science and technology. Wiley-VCH, Weinheim.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Gross domestic spending on R&D. [URL]