How The Wright Brothers Set Back Aviation History

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, April 18, 2015
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“The history of civilization has usually shown that every new invention has brought in its train new needs it can satisfy, and so what the airship will eventually be used for is probably what we can least predict at the present.” —Wilbur Wright, 1909

In A Nutshell

The Wright brothers are generally credited as being aviation pioneers, but it’s up for debate just how much they held back the field. After confirming their craft could fly and could be controlled, they sat on the design for some time while they tried to get someone to buy it sight unseen. When that didn’t work—and when they were being surpassed in technology and advances—they settled for trying to slap everyone with lawsuits. Their idea man spent much of his time in court, and it’s possible their attitude of secrecy hurt the early development of aviation.

The Whole Bushel

There’s no one else like the Wright Brothers, whose names have become synonymous with pioneering aviation history. They were the first ones to really take to the skies, to reach out and touch the clouds, to complete the journey that others had only dreamed of.

But after moving the race forward, they went ahead and set it back a bit.

The Wrights were brilliant pioneers, that much is clear. But they were also fanatically protective of their invention, and they were absolutely determined that no one was going to steal it from them—not before they could cash in on their brilliance.

Their prototype craft had first flown in 1903, and by 1905, they had something that they could remain aloft in and control for an extended amount of time. They didn’t let anyone in on any of the secrets, though, even the people they were trying to sell it to. Once they knew that it worked, they tucked the craft away in a hangar and went about trying to sell it.

What they had in scientific brilliance, they completely lacked in business sense.

They essentially sat on their creation, and first went to the US military, offering to sell them their invention with a few stipulations. No interested party was able to see the craft or get any of the specifics about it until they’d paid. The government, which had backed faulty aircraft before, declined.

The Wrights headed to Europe, trying to make the same deal with England, France, and Germany. Also not surprisingly, they were less than impressed with the thought of paying for an idea they weren’t allowed to even witness in flight, ultimately deciding to back their own projects. While the Wrights were touring prospective buyers, others were catching up on them—fast.

By 1908, French aviators were building planes that had easily surpassed the Wrights’ plane. While others were building planes and flying them all over the countryside for anyone to see, Wilbur Wright was saying, “I want the business built up so as to get the greatest amount of money with as little work.”

The Wrights became so focused on getting the most for their invention that they not only couldn’t see the people who were quickly surpassing them (whom they brushed off as imitators and frauds), but they stopped inventing to turn their attention to slapping everyone they possible could with a lawsuit. The Wrights claimed that they hadn’t just patented their craft and their invention, but that they’d patented absolutely anything that would allow an airplane lateral movement. That meant that anyone who incorporated anything of the sort into their design was infringing on the Wright brothers’ patent.

Wilbur, as the source of most of the ideas the brothers had, was also the one that was better equipped to describe their inventions in court. That meant that suddenly, all his time was spent on the witness stand instead of developing more and more ideas. And a lot of that time was spent going after Glenn Curtiss, another aviation pioneer who they claimed had just gone and taken all their ideas.

The two competitors had two entirely different approaches to the lawsuit. While the Wrights appeared in court time after time, Curtiss let his lawyers go to court for him, and he continued doing what he did best—build airplanes.

Eventually the lawsuit was settled in favor of the Wrights, but by that time, Wilbur was a broken man. He would contract typhoid and die before he even saw the settlement, and Orville would find that they had been massively surpassed in the aviation field. Their craft now look archaic and hard-to-handle, and just how much ground had been lost in between time spent in court and advancements suppressed would long be up for debate.

The lawsuits were settled in early 1914, and Orville sold the company in 1915. And it was in 1931 that Wrights’ company merged with their nemesis, and became Curtiss-Wright. In the end, the Wrights came in second.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: John T. Daniels
Forbes: How The Wright Brothers Blew It
Wall Street Journal: Wright Brothers’ Patent Battle Proved Costly in Aviation Race
NY Times: Greed and the Wright Brothers