The Wright Brothers suffered a lot of bad press due to their secretiveness and their tendency to sue anyone who they thought was infringing on their life’s work. In fact they were so secretive that they did not even agree to display their aircraft to buyers including the government unless they had a supply order. The Airplane Patent Wars had a major impact on aviation in America between 1908 and 1917.
Many flyers before the Wright brothers had attempted to make and fly airplanes – with disastrous or fatal results. The Wrights succeeded because they were able to evolve a system of three axis control over an airplane. They also carried out hundreds of scientifically conducted wind tunnel experiments to determine the airfoil structure of their wings. It is also to their credit that lacking any formula for propeller efficiency and finding ship propeller theory of no use in aviation; they understood that the aerial propeller is a wing moving in the vertical plane. In fact, with no theory to back them up, they produced propellers that were 82% efficient which was a remarkable feat.
It is therefore no surprise that the brothers wanted to protect their invention any way they could. They attempted to file a patent themselves for a flying machine in 1903. This was rejected. A 1904 attempt with the help of a patent attorney was successful and in 1906 they were granted a patent for a flying machine. Central to the idea was the capability of roll control using a technique of wing warping without which controlled flight could not be achieved.
However, you cannot stop an idea whose time has come. So it was with the airplane. Once news got around that the secret had been discovered, aviation enthusiasts began to develop similar designs and soon others such as Glen Curtiss had airplanes flying.
In 1908 the Wrights warned Curtiss not to make or sell airplanes that relied on ailerons for roll control since they held the patent. Curtiss paid no heed and sold one to the Aeronautic Society. The resulting lawsuit led to the airplane patent wars and carried on for years till a court ruled in favor of the Wrights in 1913. Curtiss appealed and the fight went on. The Wrights brought lawsuits against several others including those in different countries.
In all of this legal wrangling, the only real loser was American Aviation. For years, no worthwhile commercial development of airplanes occurred in America. So much so that when the first world war began, there were no made in America planes with the US forces.
Finally the US government intervened and set up an Aviation Patent Pool called the Aircraft Manufacturers Association. A royalty was paid to the Wrights and to Curtiss (who himself held dozens of aviation patents including one for the aileron). Only after this was established, could aircraft manufacture really start in the US. With this intervention the airplane patent wars finally came to an end.
To understand the secretiveness which was an obsession with the brothers, one has to understand their background. The brothers were from an average family and were running a bicycle business. They never married, fearing that the pressures of married life would take away from their love of flying. At every corner they feared a conspirator who would steal away their precious secrets and cheat them out of a fortune they felt was truly theirs.
The truly ironic twist came in the patent war when Curtiss and Wrights merged operations and the resulting company Curtiss Wright became a major player in the aviation industry – where they continue to be today.
Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch!
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