By Walter J. Boyne.
Reprinted on Wings Over Kansas with permission by Roger Post of Flight Journal Magazine.
It is impossible not to admire the early engineering and scientific achievements of the Wright Brothers. In four short years they wrested the secret of flight from the centuries of mistakes and misapprehensions that obscured it. In two more years they had created a practical airplane, their 1905 Wright Flyer. At a time when Alberto Santos-Dumont’s first limited hops were more than a year away, the Wrights were flying for as long as thirty-eight minutes, executing figure eights with ease and precision, and dazzling those few who came to watch them at their field on Huffman Prairie.
Yet at the same time, it is only fair to note that in the next seven years, the Wrights did almost as much to set aviation back as they had done to bring it forward. Two elements were involved in this retrograde process. The first was their litigious nature, which caused them to sue anyone they suspected was infringing on their patent-and since virtually everyone in the business of flying was doing so, this meant a lot of legal action. The second factor was in their careful protection of their patent, they were not inclined to introduce changes into their basic aircraft design. They feared that doing so would imply that improvements could be made to their Flyer, and thus open avenues for others to evade their patent. They also possessed a considerable degree of self-satisfaction, sincerely believing that their Flyer was the best approach to flight. (This would be manifest later, when a long series of fatal accidents marred the Wright aircraft reputation, with the Wrights insisting that the problem lay in [what else?] “pilot error.” )
Orville and Wilbur genuinely and properly believed that they had solved the problem of flight; and if they had possessed a Latin turn of mind, they might have called their airplane flyer the QED for quod erat demonstrandum instead of the “Flyer.”
They were determined to be as secretive as possible about their Flyer, making sure that they released only generic information that did not reveal the two critical elements of their success: knowing that control about the three axes of flight was required, and knowing that one had to learn to fly to use that control effectively.
The Wrights did not see themselves as manufacturers, ala Henry Ford, mass-producing airplanes. They wanted others to use their patent to build and sell airplanes, paying them a reasonable royalty on every one sold. (When they later charged a twenty-percent royalty on sales, their licensees did not consider it “reasonable.”) Essentially, they felt that through their hard work, vision, dangerous practice flying and a heaping measure of good luck, they had achieved something that no one else had done-or could do. They knew that they were not intuitive geniuses who solved the problem of flight intellectually. Doing so would in their minds have been a lesser achievement. But they also believed that no one else, singly or in combination with others, could duplicate their process for ten years or perhaps more. They felt that it was only fair if other practitioners of flight would pay them a license fee to build aircraft using the principles they had patented.
Orville put it plainly when he said “It is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal use of our system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes us.” The statement makes it clear that it was the Wrights against the world. And it was a true statement, for it has been observed that before the Wrights, all methods to control flying machines were different; after the Wrights, they were pretty much the same.
They had hoped that their patent would be respected from the start. When that did not occur, they placed their hopes in defending their patent in court. With the patent defended, they assumed that when other manufacturers at last began turning out aircraft in reasonable quantity, paying a royalty on each one, they could devote themselves to other research, not necessarily in aviation.
Unfortunately, the very qualities that enabled them to succeed as scientist-engineers and create the first airplane damaged the Wrights as they tried to become men of business. As businessmen, their decisions, motivated by a sense of outraged fairness and perhaps a soupcon of greed, adversely affected aviation’s progress.
The Wrights were deeply influenced by their conservative upbringing, and by the controlling and repressive hand of their father, Bishop Milton Wright. Bishop Wright had been embroiled in a long and emotionally devastating political fight within the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and consequently had a somewhat jaded eye about the motivation and character of others. It is not surprising that Bishop Wright’s attitudes contributed to Wilbur and Orville’s naive view of the world of commerce.
Then, again with good old-fashioned Dayton Ohio naiveté, they assumed that an honorable customer would take their word, as honorable men, that their aircraft would fly. They refused to demonstrate their aircraft, or even show it, to potential buyers until a sales contract was signed. They did not expect any money to change hands until later, when they had demonstrated the aircraft, but until the contract was signed, all information was classified.
This had the effect of preventing any sales for three years. One can just see some poor procurement officer going to his boss and saying “I’ve got this great deal on this flying machine, but we can’t see it until we agree to buy it.”
The Wrights were oblivious to the adverse reactions to their attitude, regarding those who did not understand it as difficult and unreasonable. They believed that once one nation purchased a Flyer, all nations would be forced to buy them. Neither Orville nor Wilbur realized, until almost too late, that their success was spurring competition at home and abroad, and that their patent would be contested or ignored.
The most dangerous competition came in the United States. The Aerial Experiment Association, founded by Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell and including, Glenn H. Curtiss, Thomas Selfridge, Frederick “Casey” Baldwin and John McCurdy, had used the basic Wright formula as a departure point for a series of four aircraft. All involved in the AEA knew that their aircraft infringed on the Wright’s patent, but they hoped that they could find away around it. At Bell’s suggestion, they incorporated ailerons into their designs in a wistful attempt to avoid infringing.
Although both the Wrights and Curtiss had experience in the bicycle business, Curtiss had taken his business to another level, building light-weight engines and motorcycles that were very well received. Well before his involvement with the AEA, Curtiss had worked with Captain Thomas Baldwin (no relation to “Casey”) in adapting the lightweight motorcycle engines for use in Baldwin’s airships.
With his brief experience in flying the AEA aircraft, Curtiss took an approach opposite to the Wrights. Where they were secretive, he was open. Where they refused to fly in exhibits or compete for prizes, he was quick to do so, knowing that he would not only gain prominence, he would gain some leverage in the patent suits that were certain to come. Curtiss’ methods did much to offset the adverse effect of the Wrights methods, but were regarded as contemptible in the extreme by the two brothers.
The Wrights patent had been granted in the United States, France, Belgium and Germany by the fall of 1906. When Curtiss flew the June Bug for 5,360 feet in one minute and forty-six seconds to win the Scientific American Prize on July 4, 1908, Orville Wright responded with a letter stating all the points where Curtiss had infringed. His letter was quite specific, noting that the combination of controls that Curtiss was using was covered by Claim 14 of their Patent No. 821,393.
Curtiss’ success, and the growing prowess of European competitors spurred the Wrights on, but they still declined to compete either for the London Daily Mail’s $5,000 prize for a flight across the English Channel, or in the Grande Semaine De L’Avaition De La Champagne, the world’s first aviation fair at Reims in 1909. Louis Blériot flew his wing-warping Model XI across the Channel, and Curtiss won the James Gordon Bennett Cup at Reims, a triumph that made him the fastest man in the air at 47.0 mph. He was already the fastest man on land, having ridden his motorcycle to a top speed of 137 mph in 1907. He was certainly the best publicist for aviation, and the best salesman for his products.
The Wrights answer was to file suit in New York on August 18, 1909. An injunction against Curtiss was issued on January 3, 1910, restricting the Herring-Curtiss Company from the manufacture, sale or exhibition of aircraft. Curtiss appealed the verdict, and continued in business, accepting the risk that if the injunction were upheld, he would lose enormous sums of money.
Curtiss, upset by the Wright patent, had been gulled into forming a company with Augustus Herring, who told him that he possessed patents predating that of the Wrights. Curtiss signed an agreement in which the Herring-Curtiss company was formed. Curtiss supplied all his knowledge and all of his considerable assets while Herring promised to put up his patents. Unfortunately for Curtiss, Herring had no patents-it was a scam. When this was discovered, the Herring-Curtiss Company filed for bankruptcy.
Encouraged, the Wrights began systematically to sue anyone suspected of infringing their patents, which really meant everyone attempting to make a living from building or flying airplanes.
Operating under the appeal, Curtiss bounced back, accepting the fact that a final ruling against him would ruin him. Unfortunately for everyone but the Wrights, their patent was upheld in successive judgements.
Law suits, then as now, dragged on for years. In the interval the Wrights made a considerable fortune, almost at the last possible opportunity, selling the manufacturing rights of their aircraft abroad, and forming their own company (Wright & Company) in the United States.
The effect of the Wright patent suits was far more damaging in the United States than in Europe. In the U.S., manufacturers had to undertake all the risks of entering aviation and either pay the Wrights their royalties, or face suits. In Europe, the situation was slight different; the cases were expected to linger longer in court, hopefully until the Wrights’ patents expired. In addition, flying had caught on among the wealthy and aristocratic in Europe, where competing in the various types of air races became as fashionable as the races at Ascot. In addition, many of those who flew were also officers in various branches of the service, and, because of rising international tensions in Europe, were able to induce their governments to purchase aircraft for military use. One result of this was the steady eclipse of U.S. aviation by foreign nations, particularly France.
The Wrights further restricted aviation progress in the United States by sticking doggedly to their basic design, despite the obvious advances being made in Europe. Improvements were made to the 1910 Model B, which had the elevator in the rear, wheels in place of skids, and did not require the tower-catapult for takeoff. The later Model C proved to be a man-killer; seven were purchased by the Army and five crashed, killing five men.
Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912. Orville attributed his death at least in part to his having been debilitated by the physical and mental stress of the lawsuits, particularly those with Curtiss. Orville entertained strong feelings of resentment about Curtiss until his death in 1948.
Oddly enough, in 1915, Orville showed considerable a previously concealed business acumen, buying up all the stock in his company, borrowing for the first time in his life to do so, and then selling it for $1.5 million to a syndicate that included Glenn L. Martin. Orville remained nominally as a consultant, but in fact walked away from the cares of the company without regret.
The company he left behind did not prosper, and was merged with other firms to become the Wright-Martin Company in 1916. Martin left in 1917, and it became Wright Aeronautical Corporation in 1919. Ironically, on August 8, 1929, Wright Aeronautical merged with the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor company to become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. The placement of the names further embittered Orville, seeing it as one more unfair triumph for Glenn Curtiss, even though Curtiss was no longer active in the firm.
The world owes the Wrights a great deal for aviation; it might have owed even more if they had been a shade more imaginative and a shade less possessive in their business dealings.