“Curtiss – Wright: The Start of a New Era”
The Wright Brothers historic flight of December 17, 1903, is the stuff legends are made of. Although there had been many others who attempted flight and flew aircrafts before them, like their mentor and predecessor Samuel Pierpont Langley, Wilbur and Orville Wright were considered pioneers in the “art of flying” (McIntyre, 1994). Langley was famous for the flight of the “Aeorodrome” that plunged into the Potomac River just days before the Wright Brothers successful flight in 1903. He bore the wrath of Congressman who were upset because of the $50,000 loss of tax payer dollars that had been utilized to finance the flight.
Because of the Wright Brothers ‘pioneer status’ they were afforded “broad interpretations of their patents from the U.S. courts” (McIntyre, 1994). As such, the brothers held a virtually monopoly on human flight, and the brothers found themselves regularly having to defend infringements on their patent technology. The Wright Brothers were considered highly principled And because of their principles, they found themselves regularly engaged in battles to protect what was theirs.
The greatest challenge to the Wright Brothers patent in the United States came from inventor, Glenn Hammond Curtiss. He and the Wrights not only had aviation in common but both their early inventions were in bicycle making (Wicks, 2010). Curtiss’ first flights were under the auspices of Thomas Baldwin, a local businessman for whom Curtiss is said to have supplied motors. Unhappy with the awkwardly slow airships, Curtiss eagerly accepted an invitation to work with Alexander Graham Bell; best known for his later invention of the telephone. Bell considered Curtiss to be “the greatest engine maker in the country” (House, 2009). He considered Curtiss necessary and invaluable. Curtiss accepted the position of chief engineer for Bell’s organization, the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) (House, 2009). At the time, Bell is said to have been experimenting with multi-cell, tetrahedral kites with the proposed goal of applying that brand of technology to practical flying machines. As his work stalled, Curtiss offered the suggestion of contacting the Wright Brothers in an attempt to gain new inspiration and insight into how best to transfer the technologies; if at all (49). At Curtiss’ behest, Bell’s association secretary, Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge send correspondence to the Wright Brothers in January 2008, requesting a series of specific questions regarding air pressure theory as well as construction techniques be addressed (McIntyre, 1994).
As the Wrights were men of principle and high moral character, and they perceived Alexander Graham Bell to be a principled man as well, they were reportedly willing to share their expertise with the scientists for the purpose of research. All of the questions posited by Selfridge were answered by Orville Wright, and they referred to their own patent for any additional information that was needed.
Curtiss built several aircrafts and managed a series of flights under the auspices of the AEA during 1908 (Shulman, 2002), and on July 4th, successfully flew the June Bug approximately 5300 feet capturing a trophy from the Scientific American for the first public flight in the United States over a one km straightway course. Orville Wright, displeased with the ‘feature similarities’ between the June Bug and their patented technology, advised Curtiss that they were in violation of the Wright Brothers patent; serving to remind him that their assistance to the AEA had been for the expressed purpose research only (55). “We did not intend,” he declared, “to give permission to use the patented features of our machines for exhibitions or in a commercial way” (Polmar, 2011).
Orville is said to have been suspicious of Curtiss’ intentions from early on due to the fact that early in 1909, Curtiss discontinued his association with the AEA and secured a charter from the State of New York to manufacture commercial airplanes for commercial sale. And he was successful with his first commercial sale shortly after on June 26th. The first plan Curtiss sold was for $5,000; a great sum of money for the time. The Wright Brothers, although desirous of moving into commercial sales, had not yet been successful in doing so, were reportedly infuriated by Curtiss’ success. But they were not the only ones. Alexander Graham Bell is said to have also been upset enough by Curtiss’s successful crossover into commercialization that he contacted Curtiss for an explanation (O’Connor, 2011). Needless to say, Curtiss was not dismayed by the inquiries or upset of his aviation counterparts and moved forward with his plans. The next ‘insult to injury’ came when Curtiss’ arranged for and successfully flew in front of 5,000 paying spectators. Moreover, Curtiss’s successful flights garnered him the first pilot’s license in June 1911. Orville and Wilbur’s pilot licenses were 4th and 5th, respectively (38).
This is said to have been the beginning of the patent wars between Curtiss and the Wright Brothers. The infamous case of Wright v Curtiss is said to have languished in the courts for approximately five years. The work was said to have been exhaustive as the Brothers were often required to travel the country giving depositions and testifying, and finding themselves having to teach the basic tenets of aeronautics to judges and court personnel who had never seen what the Brothers and Curtis were fighting about (Wicks, 2000).
In 1912 while traveling, Wilbur Wright is said to have become ill on a Boston trip to testify against Curtiss. As a result of eating contaminated shellfish, Wilbur contracted typhoid fever and died shortly thereafter. Orville attributed his brother’s death to the many other ills brought about by Curtiss’ “impudence” (McIntyre, 1996). Orville was described as more determined than ever to continue the fight to protect what he and his brother had established. Some 18 months after Wilbur Wrights’ death, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Wrights (Boyne, 2003). Curtiss was ordered to immediately cease and desist all use of the Wrights’ patented technology which effectively grounded Curtiss. Once again, unfettered by the court loss, Curtiss “regrouped and developed a new strategy” (McIntyre, 1994). Because the courts accepted the Wright Flyer as the world’s first airplane, the brothers would always have priority rights conferred. However, if Curtiss could prove that another aircraft preceded the famous flight of December 17, 1903, or at least had the capability of flying by that timeframe, the patent held by the Wrights would be significantly diminished (Boyne, 2003). With this as his goal, Curtiss reportedly contacted Charles Wilcott of the Smithsonian, requesting he be loaned what was left of Langley’s Aerodrome.
According to aviation historians, Langley had died believing his machine was flawed and failed due to the launching system (Shulman, 2002). However, the Wrights, and the majority of those who studied the Aerodrome concluded that the crash was the result of faulty structural design. When Curtiss offered to rebuild the Aerodrome and to test fly it, with the expressed and proclaimed intent of vindicating Langley, Walcott is said to have acquiesced to Curtiss’ request and eagerly agreed (57). Walcott was willing to cooperate with the endeavor that would restore his predecessor’s reputation. What was not said, however, was the significant financial reward Curtiss stood to gain if the courts accepted the demonstration as proof that flight occurred at the hands of Langley prior to the flight by the Wrights.
Curtiss rebuilt the Aerodrome with multiple design and material changes (Wolldridge, 2003). Curtiss is said to have re-braced the wings because of their complete collapse during the Langley flight, and substituted an advanced state of the art engine. Curtiss was said to be successful in making several short flights across Keula Lake near Hammondsport, because of the alterations to Langley’s original plan. He was able to record his flight by securing pictures of the Aerodrome flying a few feet about the water. Subsequent to the flights, Curtiss removed the new engine, restored the Aerodrome to its original state and returned it to the Smithsonian.
Albert Zahm, head of the Smithsonian’s Langley Laboratory was a witness for Curtiss against the Wrights’ claims of patent, had been named by Walcott to observe Curtiss’ tests of the Aerodrome. He recorded in the 1914 Smithsonian Annual Report that the Langley machine had been tested “without modification” which was clearly not true (). The report of 1915 went further to suggest that the “tests thus far made have shown that former Secretary Langley had succeeded in building the first aeroplane capable of sustained and free flight with a man”(Wolldridge, 2003). The Smithsonian subsequently placed the restored Aerodrome on display in the Arts and Industries Building with a label indicating that it was “the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight” (65).
When Orville Wright learned of this he was less than pleased due to the willful distortion of the truth by a “major repository of historical artifacts” representing the most significant threat to the Wrights’ place in the history books (McIntyre, 1996). Despite Orville’s efforts, he was unsuccessful in getting the Smithsonian to retract the purposeful falsehoods its officers her perpetrated. His concern, if the Smithsonian did not believe that were aviations pioneers of human flight other revisionists would create their own versions of the birth of the airplane as well.
An incredible storm in 1913 almost destroyed the Wright Brothers Flyer and a great deal of their “proof paperwork and photographs” (Polmarr, 2011). Fortunately for the Wright Brothers, the Flyer did not sustain irreparable damage and Orville was able to save the majority of the paperwork and photos. Because the Smithsonian was no longer an option as far as validating and displaying the Flyer, Orville entertained other institutions more willing to display their aircraft. For a time, the Flyer is said to have travelled from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, the Pan American Exhibition in New York and the shed at the Wrights flying field in Dayton Ohio (McIntyre, 1994). When the original Wright engine was on display in New York, the crankshaft is said to have been stolen.
In 1928, when Orville sent the Wright Flyer to the Museum of Science in London, which was a strategy on the part of Orville, the American press are said to have responded with shock. Orville published his rational for sending the Flyer to a foreign market when he said,
I believe that my course in sending the Kitty Hawk
machine to a foreign museum is the only way of correcting the history of the flying machine, which by false misleading statements has been perverted by the Smithsonian Institution
With this machine in any American museum the national pride would be satisfied; nothing further would be done and the Smithsonian would continue its propaganda. In a foreign museum this machine will be a constant reminder of the reason for its being there, and after the people and petty jealousies of this day are gone, the historians of the future may examine the evidence impartially and make history accord with it. Your regret that this old machine must leave the country can hardly be so great as my own (McIntyre, 1994).
Over the course of the next 10 years or so, several men are said to have attempted to resolve the quarrel between the Smithsonian and the Wrights patented claims. However, the Smithsonian leadership was unrelenting and as convicted as Orville Wright. Subsequent to the death of Walcott in 1927, the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian are said to have taken some small steps towards resolution. These reportedly halfhearted efforts are said to have in no way appeased Orville Wright (O’Connor, 2011). Charles Lindbergh is said to have been one of the men who repeatedly mad efforts to get the Smithsonian to retract earlier claims on the Behalf of Langley, however, Orville would not endorse the watered down version that was offered. He made it crystal clear that he would only accept a full accounting of how Curtiss had falsified the Langley records regarding the altering of the Aerodrome prior to the tests in 1914 (McIntyre, 1994). Not only did Orville want a retraction, he wanted a public retraction that would be published with the same kind of celebratory fanfare that went along with the first lie. Lindbergh wrote, as he reflected on Orville’s position “I don’t blame him muchâ€¦ he has encountered the narrow mindedness of science and the dishonesty of commerce (37).
Wright went on to say of the experience, “I had thought that truth eventually must prevail, but I have found that silent truth cannot withstand error aided by continual propaganda” (McIntyre, 1994). The Wright Flyer stayed in England for the 1930’s and in the early 1940’s the public seemed to finally favor Orville. There were a number of magazines and newspapers that urged the return of the plane to the United States; portraying Orville as an inventor who had been wronged, fighting selflessly against a corrupt bureaucracy (Bakewell, 2010). The flyer was exposed to nightly German bombing raids during the London Blitz of 1940 and 41. This was ironic for Orville as he had frequently speculated the historic machine would mean the end of the war. The Wright Flyer was not harmed during the Blitz as the British took great care to protect it.
There was a breakthrough in the fight between the Smithsonian and Orville when Fred Kelly intervened. Kelly was a writer and acquaintance of Orville Wright. Even though a number of writers and publishers had inquired about writing Orville’s autobiography, he agreed when asked by Kelly. When Orville began to balk as they grew closer to actually working on the project, Kelly decided to intervene in the Smithsonian feud as a means of endearing Orville to the project (McIntyre, 1996). Kelly’s timing was perfect as Charles Abbott had grown tired of the negative publicity the Smithsonian continuously faced. He is said to have eagerly accepted Kelly’s offer for a negotiated settlement, and Abbott subsequently drafted an eight page pamphlet report based on his advice and sent it to Orville for approval. The Smithsonian’s Special Publication #3699, “The 1914 Test of the Langley Aerodrome” met all of the criteria articulated by Orville. The pamphlet was published October 24, 1942, which provided a complete outline of the alterations and changes Curtiss had made to the Langley machine (McIntyre, 1996). The pamphlet did not go uncontested however. There was an appeal from Abbott who noted,
If the publication of this paper should clear the way for Dr. Wright to bring back to America the Kitty Hawk machine, it will be a source of profound and enduring gratification to his countrymen everywhere. Should he decide to deposit the plane in the United States National
Museum (the Smithsonian), it would be given the highest place of honor which it is due (McIntyre, 1996).
A year or so later, Orville is said to have been satisfied with what had transpired and wrote to the Museum of Science letting the director know he wanted the Flyer returned at the end of the war. However, the Smithsonian was not yet clear of Orville’s intentions. Orville intended to announce his intentions in the company of President Franklin Roosevelt during a special dinner celebrating the 40th anniversary of the legendary flight. However, Roosevelt failed to appear at the dinner, and Orville did not make the announcement.
History bespeaks that according to the provisions established in Orville Wright’s will, if he did not call for the Kitty Hawk to be returned to the United States during his lifetime, the world’s first airplane would then become the property of the Museum of Science (Blakewell, 2010). Orville Wright died in 1948, in the process of establishing a new will with the intent of leaving the Flyer to the Smithsonian. Subsequent to Wright’s death, was whether or not Orville recalled the plane. Mabel Beck, Orville’s secretary of more than 30 years is the only person who knew the inventors daily movements and activities. Ms. Beck is said to have been extremely protective of Mr. Wright and when the co-executor of the estate, Harold miller, inquired if the inventor had written a letter of recall, Ms. Beck is said to have acknowledged that he had done just that but she refused to produce the letter. It was only after repeated threats of legal recourse that Ms. Beck is said to have finally relinquished a copy of the letter (481).
There was a tremendous amount of relief when the letter was revealed and the Smithsonian moved straight away to secure the Flyer from England, November 1948. The Wright Flyer was purchased from the family for one dollar. On December 17, 1948, there were said to be several hundred people fathered beneath the 1903 Flyer in the Smithsonian Art and Industries Building to celebrate the installation 20 feet above the floor. The fragile craft was hung some ten feet higher that it had ever flown during its four historical hops at Kitty Hawk forty five years prior (McIntyre, 1996).
There have been a great many restoration efforts with the Flyer since being installed in the Smithsonian. In 1976, the Flyer was moved to its current location; a place of honor in the National Air and Space Museum (Wicks, 2000). It has been reported that when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon in 1969, he is said to have carried a small fragment of the historical Wright Flyer’s original wing fabric as well as a piece of wood from one of the airplanes propellers (60).
Bakewell, P. (2010). On pioneering wings in France, Southwest Review, 95(3), 479-500.
Boyne, W. (2003). Curtiss built well but not too wisely with its XP-31 Swift, a sleek looking but overweight fighter, Aviation History, 13(6), 10-14.
House, K. (2009). Into the air, Aviation History, 19(6), 46-51.
McIntyre, D. (1994). Odyssey of the flyer, American History Illustrated, 28(6).
O’Connor, D. (2011). Bad boy of the air, Aviation History, 21(5), 34-39.
Polmer, N. (2011). Historic aircraft, Naval History, 25(1), 16-17.
Shulman, S. (2002). The flight that tamed the skies, Technology Review, 105(7), 54-57.
Wicks, F. (2010). Credit to the bicycle, Mechanical Engineering, 132(7), 40-44.
Wicks, F. (2000). First flights, Mechanical Engineering, 122(7), 60-66.
Wolldridge, E. (2003). Heroes by any definition, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 129(12), 64-67.
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