Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies, by Lawrence Goldstone, Ballantine, RRP£$28, 448 pages
In May 1913, Lincoln Beachey, the aviator who became a national hero by flying the Niagara Falls, announced his retirement. “They call me the Master Birdman, but there was just one thing which drew crowds to my exhibitions – a morbid desire to see something happen. They all predicted that I would be killed and no one wanted to miss the sight.”
Two years later, it happened. Enticed out of retirement, Beachey drowned when his plane crashed into San Francisco Bay. His death ended the flamboyant age of exhibition flying that started with the Wright brothers’ invention of powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
As Lawrence Goldstone recounts in Birdmen, a fine study of aviation’s early days, Wilbur Wright was also a casualty. Wilbur, who with his brother Orville came up with the idea of twisting biplanes’ wings to enable lateral control, died in 1912, not in an accident but of typhoid, weakened by his obsessive campaign to secure a share of revenue from every aircraft built.
His death did not avoid a final showdown with Glenn Curtiss, the Wright brothers’ fiercest rival, whom they thought had stolen their invention. When the US appeals court ruled in favour of the Wrights in 1914, Orville decided not to demand retrospective damages from any other US aircraft maker apart from Curtiss, to punish him.
“The death of my brother Wilbur is a thing we must definitely charge to our long struggle, and I am sure that anyone who has not carried on a patent fight, with its endless mazes of delays, could not possibly understand what Wilbur went through,” Orville told The New York Times.
The enigma is why the Wrights, feted in Europe and the US for their invention, sat on an early lead and rather than competing through further innovation, fought to stop anyone else catching up. The patent wars they unleashed sapped the US industry – by 1912, 800 aviators were flying in France each day, but only 90 in the US.
Goldstone’s vivid story of invention, vendettas, derring-do, media hype and patent fights concludes that the brothers – and Wilbur in particular – were born litigants, who inherited their proclivity for self-righteous fighting. Milton Wright, their father, was a bishop who led a schism in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.
These highly competitive men (and, in the exhibition aviatrix Harriet Quimby, one woman) in their flying machines were fascinating in themselves. Goldstone starts off sonorously, like a Smithsonian soundtrack (“The heavens have been the home of the gods in virtually every recorded religion”), but soon gets down to the human blow-by-blow.
Yet the Wright brothers’ story also has modern resonance. It is hard to escape the parallels with Silicon Valley – a similar souped-up rate of innovation; similar entrepreneurs battling for a place in history; similar patent fights, with the late Steve Jobs of Apple as the Wilbur Wright of his day.
The Wright brothers and Curtiss were well matched. They both emerged from the bicycle craze of the end of the 19th century, with the Wrights as glider pioneers and Curtiss the inventor of a lightweight engine able to power motorcycles and aircraft. Like Google and Apple, they approached the same challenge from different directions.
Ultimately, Goldstone poses an industrial question: is the restrictive US patent system good or bad for innovation? The Wright brothers were among the early beneficiaries of “pioneer patents” – rights not only to a particular invention, but to the concept. Though rivals such as Curtiss used flaps or ailerons on the wings rather than bending them, the Wrights thought they owned the idea of lateral control.
With hindsight, it was absurd, and the Wrights’ quixotic battle to become as wealthy as John D Rockefeller did not succeed. Yet the bicycle makers from Ohio were driven to extraordinary feats not only by the lust for glory but also by the profit motive.
As Goldstone writes, patents provide an incentive to invest in research and development, but “if innovators such as Curtiss cannot build on the progress of others without paying exorbitantly for the privilege, the incentive to continue to experiment and create is similarly inhibited”.
It is a sad story. Wilbur was a true inventor, capable of leaps that dazzled others – when the Wrights’ aircraft took to the air near Le Mans in 1908 “the grace and control of the Flyer left onlookers literally gasping”. The Wright brothers were giants, but they did not want anyone else to stand on their shoulders.
John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator