the wright brothers become anachronisms -- 4/04/17

Today's selection -- from Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone. After their historic 1903 breakthrough on flight, the Wright brothers were granted patents on their invention that was overly broad -- both by the standards of their time and the standards of today. The Wright brothers' vigorous attempts to enforce these patents (especially against their arch rival Glenn Curtiss) created enormous resentment and left a trail of rancorous litigation. More importantly, the brothers, especially the older brother and design genius Wilbur, pursued this litigation to the neglect of pursuing improvements in their technology, and soon found themselves trailing other pioneers in the aviation industry:

"In pursuing damages over technology, the Wrights had rendered themselves anachronisms. Their lack of moderation was equally self-­defeating. Wilbur and Orville thought anyone who did not see things their way was either ignorant or duplicitous; anyone who overtly dis­agreed with them was either a liar or a cheat. The fact that the performance of their competitors improved while Wright airplanes remained substantially unchanged was, according to the brothers, only because the rest of the aviation community were a bunch of craven patent in­fringers. ...


Wilbur Wright 

"By the end of 1911, Wilbur's frustration had begun to gnaw at his health. He had by his own admission worked harder and for longer hours pursuing the case against Glenn Curtiss than he had developing the Wright Flyer. He drove himself to exhaustion traveling around the country, meeting with lawyers and giving depositions, and grew so thin as to appear cadaverous. Family members began to express con­cern about the crushing pace he insisted on maintaining.

"In January 1912, Wilbur wrote a singular letter to the Hungarian anthropologist Guillaume de Hevesy. 'During the past three months, most of my time has been taken up with lawsuits,' he began. ... Then Wilbur made an extraordinary asser­tion. 'When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote [the past five years] to experiments, we feel very sad.'


Glenn Curtiss

"There is little question that the patent wars were devastating American aviation. By January 1912, France boasted 800 aviators a day making flights to only 90 in the United States. As early as July 1911, Aeronautics ran an editorial whose opening line read, 'What is the matter with aviation in America?' The journal lamented that 'in three short years' after the 'epoch-making flights of the Wright broth­ers in France and at Fort Myer [that] electrified the world,' America had 'changed places from the head to the foot of the procession.' The magazine blamed a combination of a fear of innovation, an unwilling­ness to spend money, and a desire by the government to sit on the sidelines and wait to see what Europe came up with. Nowhere did the editorial mention that America's two greatest designers were either spending a good part of their time (Curtiss) or all of their time (Wil­bur Wright) trying to best each other in the courtroom."


author:

Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies

title:

Lawrence Goldstone

publisher:

Ballantine Books

date:

Copyright 2014 by Lawrence Goldstone

pages:

293-294, 307-308

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COMMENTS (1)

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BobStein

April 4
This selection piqued much thought.

The author (Lawrence Goldstone) seems certain the lesson to take from this hundred-year-old story lies in picking away at the character and choices of Wilbur Wright. It doesn't seem to occur to him (at least not in this brief excerpt) to question the fitness of the patent system itself. The patent system relies so much on litigation and negotiation that innovators have no recourse but to divert significant resources. Worse, it discourages the innovation of others. In the history of the U.S. patent system, the Wright brothers' efforts should have been its finest exultation. Instead it was a disaster from every angle. It has gotten much worse since, in the realm of software patents. To me the story howls for a different approach. Of course, to raise such questions is hardly history.

The Wrights never did patent their most brilliant innovation, the shape of the propellor. This was highlighted in David McCullough's excellent book "The Wright Brothers." where he noted that the Wright propellor did not look at all like anything previous, and looked a lot like everything since.


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