115 Years after First Flight: How Legal Battles Shaped Wrights' Legacy
By Csaba Sukosd | December 19, 2018
Two brothers forever changed the history of humanity's heights when they were the first to fly more than a century ago. However, their ability to innovate the airplane was limited due to legal battles that thwarted growth and, according to the Wright brothers' family, led to one of their deaths.
Monday was the 115th anniversary since Wilbur and Orrville Wright achieved flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on Dec. 17, 1903. While many are familiar with their story as bicycle mechanics before they became aviators, few are aware of their creation's aftermath and how the brothers spent years in court protecting the patent of their "flying machine."
After their accomplishment, the Wrights submitted all their videos, photographs, drawings to distinguish their product from others. They focused on what kept it in the air: the controls.
"[They came] up with a means of controlling an airplane in all three axes of motion: pitch, roll, and yaw. Nobody else [was] going to be able to build a practical flying machine without using [their] ideas about control," said Tom Crouch, a Dayton native and curator at the National Air and Space Museum.
The three-year patent process was one part entrepreneurial. The Wrights wanted to build and sell planes as well as receive royalties and licensing fees from those who used their design. More importantly, they wanted it as an acknowledgement from others for what they achieved.
"The drive that they had to be credited with what they had done and have the respect of people was so much more important than however amount of money they might have made from it," said Dawne Dewey, who's the head of special collections and archives at Wright State University's Dunbar Library.
While they were able to sell airplanes built at their Dayton factory, their engineering and production was hindered by their ongoing court battles. As competition came from many to make money in the burgeoning industry, one rival stood out in his maneuvering. Fellow aviator and plane manufacturer Glenn Curtiss claimed his design was different. His patent war with the Wrights lasted for years.
Along with the financial and industrial ramifications, the years-long litigation took a physical toll on the family, namely Wilbur Wright. He bore the brunt of the legal legwork with the company's lawyers, which started in 1908. Four years into a decade-long ordeal, he died in 1912 of typhoid at 45.
"It had an effect on how Orrville conducted the rest of his life after Wilbur died," added Dewey.
Three years after his younger brother's passing, Orrville Wright sold the company and transitioned to the periphery of aviation, largely as an advisor. In 1929, Wright Aeronautical - the successor to Wright-Martin - merged with the Curtiss Company in 1929 and still exists today as Curtiss-Wright.
That wasn't the first time the two sides came together. A decade earlier, the government forced them and other competing companies to share their patent secrets and build planes for the military during World War I. Much like when the Wright brothers had their breakthrough in 1903, the advancements produced in the Manufacturers Aircraft Association benefitted all the generations that followed.
"[It] which becomes an organization that literally does have enormous impact on what happens to the growth of American aviation legally for the rest of the 20th century," said Crouch.