Did The Wright Brothers Go Wrong?

dranindyasircar

The Wright Brothers may have won the long-standing patent suit against Glenn Hammond Curtiss but they are often accused of stunting innovation in the aviation industry...

- Dr Anindya Sircar

None of the aircraft manufacturers and even aviators were spared by the Wright Brothers - Orville and Wilbur, who filed infringement suits both in the US and overseas, whenever any third party tried to profit. All this was possible because of US patent number 821,393 filed on March 23, 1903, which got granted in the next three years, and the two brothers never hesitated to assert their IP. The IP-savvy brothers, who started as experts in cycle repairs, also had equivalent of the US patents in several countries, including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Russia, Spain, Italy, UK, and so on.

US patentoffice

A patent for a flying machine was issued to the Wright Brothers in 1906. US patent 821,393 primarily claimed a steering system and the wing design. After developing the aeroplane, the Wright Brothers initially tried to keep all technical details under wraps because of their fear of losing control.

Meanwhile in 1907, Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone fame, established the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) whose membership was on a gradual increase. At the AEA, the Wright Brothers met Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge, who was the US government representative at the AEA, and shared their patent and design. Unfortunately, Selfridge later became the first man to die of an aeroplane crash on September 18, 1908 in a demo flight flown by Orville Wright.

The AEA then constructed several aircraft, including the Red Wing and the White Wing, which were distinctly inspired from Wright’s patented designs. Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a pilot, flew the White Wing 1,017 feet, which was much further than anyone had flown the plane before. In 1908, Curtiss designed an aeroplane and named it June Bug and flew the same for a distance of 5,360 feet in one minute and forty seconds. The flight won him a prize from Scientific American, and Curtiss became famous as a pilot of the first plane to fly a kilometer in a straight line. In 1909, Curtiss won another prize for designing an aeroplane and flying 25 miles. Needless to say, these aeroplane designs infringed the patent held by the Wright Brothers.US patentoffice2

Curtiss later founded the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. His company built aircraft for both the US Army and Navy. Both civil and military aircraft built by Curtiss dominated the inter-war and World War II eras. The Wrights finally sued Curtiss, claiming that he had stolen their design and infringed their patent. Although Curtiss became the major target of the Wright Brothers and they brought in patent infringement suits against him, a few other individuals and companies also got sued. Even though Curtiss was heckled enough by the two brothers, he was successful in becoming the leading aircraft manufacturer in the US before the onset of World War I.

The beginning of humanity’s love affair with flight is shrouded in legend. There are several tales which tell of beasts or half-birds flying. Pegasus, a flying horse, and Hermes, the messenger God in his winged sandals, were flying throughout the world in accordance with Greek mythology. Additionally, the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus tells the tale of how wings of wax and feathers were used to escape from captivity. The Chinese were the first to fly kites - these have been called the world’s first aerial vehicles. Philosopher Mo Tzu in the fifth century BC reportedly constructed a wooden kite that could fly but was wrecked after one day’s tests.

In the 15th Century, Leonardo da Vinci of Italy understood some of the basic principles of flight and was the first to seriously study aerodynamics. His notebooks were filled with drawings and descriptions of birds in flight and with models that had wings like birds. Unfortunately, his helicopter designs could never have left the ground. Early scientists failed to realize that human beings lacked the necessary muscle power to imitate bird flight with flapping wings. French inventor Gustave Trouvé in 1870 designed an ornithopter that was powered by an internal combustion engine, and the unmanned model successfully flew 70 meters in a demonstration before the French Academy of Sciences. In 1874, Alphonse Pénaud, another Frenchman, used rubber-band-powered motors to build and fly a small ornithopter.

German company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, owned by Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, was the world’s most successful builder of rigid airships. Zeppelin flew the world’s first untethered rigid airship, the LZ-1, on July 2, 1900, near Lake Constance in Germany, carrying five passengers. Zeppelin continued to improve his design and build airships for the German government. At the beginning of World War I, Germany had ten zeppelins. During the war, the Germans used zeppelins for bombing raids in London and Paris.

In 1909, at a flight demonstration in Europe, the Wright Brothers met J.P. Morgan, a wealthy businessman. Later that year, Morgan introduced the Wrights to a group of New York financiers who were interested in backing the aviation industry. These investors funded and helped the Wright brothers establish the Wright Company, and in January 1910, the Wright Company set up a factory in Dayton, Ohio, and a flying field and flight school at Huffman Prairie.

But by then, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company was becoming the most dominant player in aircraft manufacturing, and this was the biggest botheration for the Wright Brothers. Orville and Wilbur were confident that their patent and designs were getting infringed by Curtiss and a few others and soon Curtiss became their main concern and focus. Glenn Curtiss became the main target of the Wright Brothers’ patent suit in the US. Both parties were drained of their financial resources in this legal battle. Attempts to reach an amicable solution by the lawyers did not find any success. Unfortunately, Wilbur died of Typhoid in May 30, 1912. The grieved Wright family even blamed Curtiss for this and claimed that Wilbur became over concerned with the patent litigation - lost his health and died. The Wright family refused to back down and continued to be aggressive on patent litigation. Finally, in 1913, the verdict of the patent law suit came and Orville Wright, now without Wilbur, was declared the undisputed winner. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Curtiss to stop making aeroplanes comprising two ailerons operating simultaneously in opposite direction. Considerable useful time was lost in the infringement suit, which affected innovation and delayed much-needed advancement and improvement of the aeroplane at that hour.

In the next few years, there were only two major patent holders in this domain – the Wright Company and the Curtiss Company. But July 1914, saw the onset of World War I, and the demand for aircraft suddenly increased. Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, pressured the industry to form a cross-licensing organization - Manufacturer’s Aircraft Association. In other words, a patent pool got formed. All aircraft manufacturers were required to join the association and pay a small fee. This arrangement was designed to last only for the duration of the war.

But post-war after 1918, litigation in this context never got renewed - the “patent war” had come to an end. Orville Wright later sold the Wright Company to a group of New York financiers and left business. The Manufacturer’s Aircraft Association was probably the earliest example of a government-enforced patent pool. In 1929, the historic merger of Wright and Curtiss led to the formation of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which exists even to this day. Although the Wright brothers won the patent litigation, it damaged their earlier heroic public image considerably and they were often accused of retarding innovation in the aircraft industry.

Disclaimer – Views expressed in the article are personal views of the author and are purely informative in nature.

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