Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, And The Battle To Control The Skies by Lawrence Goldstone, 2014
This book examines the early period of aviation from its beginnings through World War I. Two main threads emerge; one being the technical side of the discovery of flight and the incremental performance improvements, the second being the personalities of the early aviators and the legal wrangling that they became embroiled in. The central focus is on the Wright brothers and their chief rival, Glenn Curtiss. A large cast of additional rival inventors, entrepreneurs, dare-devil pilots, politicians, and con men are presented to round out the story. The main theme is how the Wright brothers, perfectly suited as inventors, achieve one of the most significant discoveries in history and become consumed by defending it legally and are thrust into roles they are ill-suited for, leaving them bitter and drained (and Wilbur dead). Glenn Curtiss, who infringed on their patent, continued to innovate during the lawsuits and surpassed their designs with planes of his own. He was, in turn, victimized by a con man who nearly ruined Curtiss financially. The effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the patent system to balance the encouragement of innovation versus fairly rewarding original invention is a sub-theme touched on in the latter part of the book. Indispensable to the technical progress that was made in this period are the dare-devil pilots who flew and performed stunts in the wildly popular air shows and races. Almost all of them died testing the limits of early aircraft. One of the most colorful and daring of these pilots was Lincoln Beachey. Playing off the stereotypes of women of the times, he sometimes flew in drag under a female pseudonym to further enhance the astonishment of the audience. He was also instrumental in figuring out the recovery from a tailspin: “In 1911, for example, a tailspin meant almost certain death, since no aviator had found a means to recover once the aircraft began spiraling toward the ground. Convinced he could solve the problem, Beachey flew his Curtiss biplane to five thousand feet and then intentionally threw it into a tailspin. Trying different techniques as he spun downward, he eventually kicked the rudder hard against the spin, and the plane leveled out.”
As in the case with many other major inventions, the airplane came about through the accumulation of technical discoveries of many investigators to which a final inventor(s), here the Wright brothers, provided the critical missing pieces. Through their meticulous work they found the means for lateral stability by wing warping, and an improved wing shape for providing enough lift. As great as this achievement was, the legal controls and royalties that they were seeking in their patent lawsuits were drastic and greedy enough to essentially turn all of the other inventors, including many who were making their own discoveries, into the Wright brothers employees. Such an injustice was forestalled with a narrow upholding of the patent and further legal circumvention by Curtiss and others. The legal battles, which dragged on for years, had the net effect of stifling aviation innovation in America up to World War I and as a result, the only aircraft designs flown in battle in World War I were European. The Americans produced only an inferior copy of an English machine for the war. In the end, Orville Wright pursued a personal vendetta against Glenn Curtiss, whom he blamed for Wilbur’s death. This book brings to light the struggles among the pioneers of flight which time has filtered out of the broader public awareness. Similar rivalries have been written about in recent years in this historical sub-genre. Two notable examples are: “Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World” by Jill Jonnes, and “Capturing the light: The Birth of Photography, A True Story of Genius and Rivalry.” by Roger Watson.