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Not Mastering Flight: Mastering Its Patents



Rob Hardy


Schoolchildren all over the world learn that Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane. The story is, of course, more complicated than that, because they didn't do it completely on their own, and were building on decades of development of, say, engines and gliders. They may have given humanity wings, but flying humans from place to place and getting airplanes to be commonplace and useful, was a different part of the story of flight, and it is a story in which the Wright Brothers play a less heroic role. That is the tale in Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies (Ballantine Books) by Lawrence Goldstone. It is a tale of rivalry, not for control of the skies but for the patents that controlled who was going to make money by selling aircraft. Rivalry and competition is what innovation in business is supposed to be all about, but in this case it eventually degenerated into mere revenge, and innovation suffered. It is a story that may have implications for our own times.  




Naturally, Goldstone summarizes how the Wrights came to their epochal flight in 1903, concentrating on their joint work, but always emphasizing that Wilbur was the engineering and experimental dynamo, with Orville playing the role of the enthusiastic and cooperative little brother. They built their machine not by tinkering as much as by scientifically evaluating fundamentals. The published tables of lift and drag, for instance, they found to be inaccurate and unhelpful. They took the concept of the wind tunnel and made the best and most accurate one that had ever been seen, one that was sensitive enough to give fine results. "Occasionally," wrote Wilbur, "I had to yell at my brother to keep him from moving even just a little in the room because it would disturb the air flow and destroy the accuracy of the test."  




The great insight that came from their experiments, including the ones at Kitty Hawk, was the essentialness of stability in flight, stability which they achieved by "wing warping," twisting the left wings one way while twisting the right wings another. The warping enabled stable banked turns and the ability to correct the plane against gusts of wind. Their innovation allowed them to form a manufacturing company based on their ideas, but their patent aspirations were broader. They meant to patent the idea of the lateral stability they had achieved, and meant that whether the stability was gained by wing warping or by any other means, it was their domain and the manufacturer of any aircraft that had such stability had to pay them rights, something to the tune of 20% of the cost of the plane. They sought a monopoly on flying machines. 




Having had the innovation for stability, the Wright brothers stalled in following it up with further changes in design. The man who made plenty of innovations and made reliable working airplanes was Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss had built motorcycles and engines to go into them; he had held the land speed record in 1904 (10 miles in 8 minutes 54.4 seconds; that's 67 mph). His engines were light and efficient, and were perfect for the powered balloons that many continued to see as the way to conquer the air. A genial man who visited the Wrights, he was eager to talk all about flying. The brothers didn't show them their plane, but showed photographs, causing decades of contention about how much Curtiss had absorbed from the meeting. He was to design planes with all the lateral stability that the Wrights claimed was their invention, but to do so without warping the wings; Curtiss was to invent a system of flaps on the wings (the ailerons still used on most planes). It worked better than wing warping. Curtiss was to invent all sorts of useful changes to the flying machine, like putting wheels on it, or putting retractable wheels on it, or pontoons for a seaplane, or the enclosed cockpit. But according to the Wrights, every plane Curtiss sold was an infringement on their broad patent. 




Curtiss remained inventive, and the Wrights did not. A basic reason is that Wilbur Wright, a brilliant inventor and self-taught engineer, stopped inventing and devoted himself to making money. This meant that he ran the corporation, at which he was not expert, but especially he went after everyone he thought was infringing on the Wright patent. It is the stuff of tragedy, and Wilbur himself knew it. He was to write to a friend in 1912, "When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote [the past five years] to experiments, we feel very sad." He died that year, at age 45, of what the doctors said was typhoid, but the family never gave up the explanation that the patent infringers had worried him into an early grave. Indeed, Orville, who took on Wilbur's responsibilities, continued ruthlessly to hunt down infringers, and when the court decisions eventually went the Wrights' way, Orville only exacted licensing fees on the machines produced by Curtiss. He thought Curtiss was personally responsible for Wilbur's death. Orville did not have the inventive drive or organizing energy that his deceased brother had, but he had the vindictiveness, and he did everything he could to bring Curtiss down. Wilbur's end was sad, and so was Orville's, although he lived to be 76. Goldstone writes, "It is difficult to view Orville Wright as anything but a sad and lonely man who never found his calling - and perhaps never even sought it - and who died without ever making one genuine friend." Not only did the Wright's business suffer because of the patent wars; Goldstone says the patent arguments kept American aviation secondary for years. No American-designed airplane, for instance, was selected for military aviation during World War I. 




Curtiss airplanes would go on to one success after another, and the successes were often defined by contests or barnstorming feats that thrilled crowds but left the dour Wright brothers cold. Pilots broke records of distance, speed, and altitude, taking cash prizes and making names for themselves. Among the many birdmen profiled here, the greatest was Lincoln Beachey, who would perform his "Corkscrew Twist" and especially his "Dip of Death," thrilling all onlookers. He was a brilliant pilot, but he knew that among the crowd were plenty of onlookers who came to see him crash. (In fact, when aviators crashed, spectators would swarm the wreckage, looking for morbid souvenirs to take away, like the pilot's gloves or scarf or material from the plane's wings.) Indeed, Beachey realized that his fantastic stunts were the cause of death of many less talented or less lucky pilots who tried to duplicate them. Beachey attempted to retire in 1913, giving as a reason all those lost pilots, but he was lured back by the prospect of taking another first, a loop, which he did in a Curtiss plane. He himself was killed in a crash in 1915, but Goldstone says "it is quite possible that Lincoln Beachey did the finest flying the world has ever seen." 




These birdmen would have thought it astonishing how easy and how taken for granted is air travel for us now. Besides being an instructive parable for our times about the uses and abuses of patents, Birdmen vividly takes us back to a time when just getting a machine in the air was an engineering miracle and when just seeing such a machine aloft was a sensation. He quotes a New York Times story from 1910, about spectators in Battery Park to a flying contest watching the planes come into view from a distance: "The sight, at first uncanny, held them speechless. Cold chills ran down the back. In spite of the fact that they all knew about aeroplanes and that they really do fly, seeing one do it was something like meeting a ghost."



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