The Dark, Unhappy Ending


AvStop Magazine Online

The Dark, Unhappy Ending

Although the Wrights initially received wide acclaim for their invention of the airplane, the aviation community was quickly overcome by jealousy and greed: airplane developers did not want to pay the modest license fee the Wright brothers asked when others employed their method of lateral control in heavier-than-air flight. To escape this fee, the aviation industry engaged in a prolonged smear campaign against the Wright brothers, minimizing their contributions in the invention of the airplane. France and Germany simply refused to issue the Wrights patents for controlling the lateral motion of airplanes by ailerons or wing-warping. Europeans were free to copy the Wrights ideas without restrictions, or the embarrassing admission that the Wrights had done something the Europeans had not. In America, an ugly patent fight erupted. The Wrights brought suit against Glenn Curtiss, who was selling airplanes with aileron control without paying royalties to the Wrights. To fight the suit, Curtiss enlisted Albert Zahm, then on the staff at the Smithsonian. Zahm, with his public forum through his position at the Smithsonian and later at the Library of Congress, was especially effective in trivializing the Wright's contributions.

Even the Smithsonian got into the fight, for selfish reasons. Samuel Pierpont Langley, one-time director of the Institution, had spent a fortune of the Institution's money to develop heavier-than-air craft. His craft, launched from a houseboat, could not take the strains imposed by the catapult, and broke during the launching, causing a great deal of humiliation to both Langley and the Smithsonian. Curtiss and Zahm offered to prove that Langley's airplane was effective, restoring the reputation of the Smithsonian in the process. They re-built the crashed airplane, making a number of modifications to the craft needed to make it airworthy. It was then flown in a straight line, with no method of lateral control, as a way of showing the Wrights did not really invent the airplane. In all the publicity that followed the event, the Smithsonian, Curtiss, and Zahm neglected to mention the many modifications made to the plane, claiming they had reconstructed the plane to Langley's original design. The Smithsonian recanted this claim only after many years and considerable damage to the Wright's reputation.

What reward did society bestow upon the Wrights for all their pains, their creativity, and their generosity? Wilbur, worn out and exhausted from a prolonged legal fight in the patent battle against a set of well-financed, viscous, and self-serving collection of airplane developers, succumbed to a mild case of food poisoning. In a small measure of victory, the courts sided with the Wrights. From this outcome, Orville was able to obtain a tidy sum of money, although the sum was in no way commensurate with the importance of the Wright's contribution or the patent the brothers received for their method of lateral control. Of course, no money at all came from European countries, which simply stole the Wright ideas without compensation.

The smear campaign against the Wrights must be counted as one of the most effective in history. Today the common man recognizes the Wrights as the inventors of the airplane, but the prevailing attitude toward the Wrights is that they were bicycle mechanics who invented, perhaps by happenstance and chance, the first airplane. Few today realize the genius and hard work the Wrights brought to their chosen task. Even fewer appreciate the elegance of the sturdy Wright biplanes, how difficult it is to learn to fly as you invent an airplane, or have any idea how much longer society would have waited for airplanes if the Wrights hadn't taught us all the way. As we near the 100th anniversary of the First Flight, efforts are underway to build a national park in Dayton to honor the Wrights. One might imagine that corporations who make billions off the airplane would be eager to support this effort. One might imagine that countries who stole from the Wrights might be looking to make amends. One would be wrong. Watch your back, Jack.