The Airplane: Not Invented By the Wright Brothers

One of the most fascinating stories in patent law is now over 100 years old: the story about how the Wright Brothers tried to lock up all legal rights to human flight. I told this story in my 2007 book Group Genius, and I’ve just learned that Lawrence Goldstone has told a new version–in his forthcoming book Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal April 9, 2014.* In Group Genius, I use the Wright Brothers’ legal battles to demonstrate how “collaborative webs” are always more innovative than solitary lone geniuses. The Wrights tried to lock up the rights, and it ended up killing their own creative potential:

[In 1903] They didn’t get a patent for “flight”; they were granted a patent for their key innovation, a lateral control mechanism that steered by warping the entire wings forward or backward….Instead of showing off their new invention, they holed up in Dayton, refused to do press interviews, and wouldn’t let photographers near the farm field where they tested small improvements. On September 30, 2007, Alexander Graham Bell donated $20,000 to found the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). Their goal was to win Scientific American magazine’s prize for the first plane that could fly a kilometer in a straight line. Their first plane was tested on March 12, 1908. It looked a lot like the Wright’s plane, but to avoid infringing on the Wright’s patent, it didn’t use wing warping for lateral control; instead, it used a system of trusses to curve the whole wing up or down. Casey Baldwin, an AEA member, designed the next plane; for lateral control, it used ailerons–small pivoting surfaces at the trailing edge of the wing. The third AEA project was Glenn Curtiss’s June Bug, and he flew it a mile and won the Scientific American trophy. The Wrights couldn’t even enter because their plane didn’t have wheels (they launched their plane from a special railroad track) and couldn’t take off from the field. When Curtiss started getting a lot of press attention, the Wrights filed a patent infringement lawsuit. They claimed their patent controlled all lateral steering mechanisms; if true, then no plane could ever fly without infringing the patent. In 1913, a federal court sided with the Wrights and ordered Curtiss to cease making airplanes using ailerons. Curtiss then built a different plane, based on an 1899 design by Samuel Pierpont Langley; now Curtiss could claim his idea came before the Wright’s patent, and the case dragged on into World War I. (pp. 189-191)

Because this legal fight blocked American innovation, the collaborative web instead kept innovating in Europe, where the Wright brothers weren’t able to enforce their patent. British, German, and French airplane industries were booming, with constant innovations leaving the Americans behind. In my public talks, I often show photos of the airplanes being built in Europe; they look like modern planes. Then, I show a 1914 photo of the Wright brothers’ plane; it has barely changed from 1903. In 1917, when the U.S. entered the war, the U.S. government forced the Wright and Curtiss companies to form a patent pool with open sharing.

Goldstone’s new book tells a portion of the story; I got many of the above details from Shulman’s 2002 book, Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane. Goldstone notes that the Wrights were indeed granted a extremely broad patent, and the court upheld it in 1913. (I’ve read the court decision, by Judge Learned Hand; it’s, fascinating and it has lessons for today’s patent fights.) Goldstone concludes:

Nowadays, both the number and the nature of lawsuits involving software, hardware, and even design minutia are testament that patent law remains the damper on innovation that it was when airplane development was nearly grounded in its infancy.

*Goldstone, L. 2014. “How a Patent Fight Grounded the Wright Brothers.” Wall Street Journal, April 9, p. A13.

6 thoughts on “The Airplane: Not Invented By the Wright Brothers

  1. Interesting story but about webs and inventing and innovating. It’s about time the myth of lone inventors and individual (isolated) genius was put into doubt. Social Constructivist theories of inventing/innovating are worth a read to support the importance of networks . For example, similar to the above story ar the histories of the safety bicycle and Bakelite by Wiebe E. Bijker. Later, actor network theory provides, essentially, a systemic or relational perspective on technical system development. For me, invention and innovating are social processes. Innovating is, fundamentally, a process of socializing an invention, and not one of commercialisation, which is the main definition in business studies. The philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg’s developed what he called a metatheory of technology which supports the idea that an invention never occurs in a social vaccuum and for an ‘invention’ to be realised it has to be fitted to existing networks of social and technical relations.

  2. I agree completely. You will love my book GROUP GENIUS! You would probably also like my 2012 overview of the “sociocultural” approach to creativity research, the book is EXPLAINING CREATIVITY.

  3. There are many technical problems with Flyer I 1903. The plane was unstable, underpowered and had propellers that appeared only in 1908, exactly in the same year when the Wright brothers flew for the first time in front of credible witnesses. The brothers simply lied about their flights in 1903-1905. They built their planes in France in 1908 with french engines (Barriquand et Marre), french propellers and using the entire French flight experience of 1908.


    1. That’s a fun Wikidot page. As I always say, once you scratch beneath the surface of a lone genius story, the reality gets complex, distributed, and collaborative very fast.

  4. To blame the retarded growth of American aviation on the Wright-Curtiss patent battle is to ignore the facts of the case. When the suit was settled through the creation of a patent pool in 1917, Glenn Curtiss was the only American building aircraft at a European level. Wilbur Wright was dead and Orville had sold the Wright company. Clearly, the patent suit had not done much to retard the success of Glenn Curtiss! The myth of the damage done by the patent suit masks the real reason for the slow advance of American aviation. In truth, an array of subsidies and other financial supports offered the airframe and engine industry by European governments prior to 1914, and the total absence of such support in the US, explains why the warring nations of Europe captured the lead in aeronautical technology and left America in the shade.

    1. Thanks for adding that information! As I said, scratch beneath the surface of the “lone genius” story, and the reality gets messy and complicated really fast. But of course, the patent lawsuits retarded innovation. Think of all of the Americans who MIGHT have founded airplane companies, if they weren’t staring at a prohibitive licensing fee PER AIRPLANE that the Wrights wanted to charge. Without the patent issues, there could have been one hundred U.S. airplane companies, all driving innovation forward through competition through markets. Thankfully we had Curtiss, but no one person is a solo creator; collaborative webs always win out over solitary individuals or companies.

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