In 1905 the Wright brothers enjoyed a complete monopoly on heavier-than-air aviation. They had the world’s only working airplane, were the only two pilots able to fly it, and had applied for a formidable patent that would cover any plane with three-axis control. Yet within five years they would regularly be surpassed by competitors at home and abroad, and before what was remembered as the Golden Age of Aviation arrived in the 1920s, they would be out of the aircraft business entirely. What happened?
The answer lies in the series of business decisions the brothers made once they had developed a plane that was suitable for the market. The prototype Flyer had first flown in December 1903, but not until late 1905 did they have a reliable aircraft design that could be mass-produced. They had spent the two-year interval at Huffman Prairie–an isolated field near Dayton, Ohio–building, flight-testing and modifying their engine, airframe, and wing-warping control system.
At a time when no other airplane could even take off, the 1905 Flyer–the third plane the Wrights built with that name–was “capable of carrying two men and fuel for a fifty-mile trip,” Wilbur wrote to their mentor, the French-born aeronautical pioneer Octave Chanute, in May of that year, as the brothers prepared for a final summer of flight testing.
By late 1905 Wilbur and Orville were flying over Huffman Prairie in graceful circles, masters of the complex forces of yaw, pitch and roll. The craft was so advanced that nobody but the small crowd of eyewitnesses that had gathered in the field could believe it. Straight and level flight might have been accepted, but climbing turns and circling over a field for half an hour? The publicity-shy brothers did not alert the press, so there was little coverage of their experiments. Finally a few curious newspaper reporters started showing up, but not until the weather had turned bad and the brothers had hangared the plane. It didn’t fly again for nearly three years, and by then much of the world thought of the Wrights as frauds.
The layoff was caused by the brothers’ obsession with secrecy. They had a patent pending on the airplane’s control technique, which enabled it to climb, dive and turn, but even after the patent was granted in May 1906, they were unwilling to show the machine to anyone who might steal its design, since enforcing their patent rights could be a long, laborious, and very expensive process. Having conquered flight, they wanted to cash out before going any further.
Chanute urged the brothers to try for some of the aviation prizes that were being offered for flights of specified times and distances, which would have established their dominance in the public’s mind. They refused. “We would have to expose our machine more or less, and that might interfere with the sale of our secrets,” they wrote to a friend in January 1906. “We appreciate the honor and the prestige that would come with the winning of a prize…but we can hardly afford at the present time to jeopardize our other interests in doing it.”
Recognizing the airplane’s potential military applications, the Wrights offered to sign a manufacturing contract with the U.S. War Department, but they presented the deal in such a clumsy and stubborn way that there was no chance it would be accepted. They refused to show the airplane to any prospective buyer without a sizable deposit, and when pressed for proof that it could fly, they furnished the names of Dayton residents who had happened to see their Huffman Prairie tests. The military representatives, having already dealt with countless aircraft visionaries (including Samuel P. Langley of the Smithsonian, who spent $50,000 of War Department funds on his unsuccessful experiments), understandably refused to hand over any money until they saw the plane, or at least a photograph of it.
The Wrights approached the British, who at first were greatly interested but later on decided to support their own airplane research. Negotiations with France and Germany dragged on as the various officials and purchasing consortia kept changing their contractual demands. The Wrights refused to budge on the price and gave technical reasons why the aircraft’s specifications couldn’t be changed. Instead of demonstrating the plane’s capabilities for prospective buyers, they just talked about them and insisted on being taken at their word. Afterward, if the plane failed to perform as promised, they would refund the buyer’s money. (With the Europeans, this cautious approach was justified, since almost every industrial country was trying to build its own aviation industry, and patent rights would have been much harder to enforce abroad.)
As the negotiations spun out fruitlessly, the Wrights’ sales prospects started to dim. Yet they weren’t worried about competition. Wilbur wrote to Chanute in late 1906, “…we are convinced that no one will be able to develop a practical flyer within five years.” So they sat and waited.
Meanwhile, the competition began to heat up. In October 1906 the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont flew more than 160 feet in France, earning the public acclaim the Wrights had never achieved. Newspaper articles made much of the fact that Santos-Dumont had not flown in secret.
Wilbur Wright dismissed the feat in a letter to Chanute: “From our knowledge…he has only jumped…When someone goes over three hundred feet and lands safely in a wind of seven or eight miles it will then be important for us to do something. So far we see no indication that it will be done for several years yet.” In fact Santos-Dumont flew more than 700 feet a month later, winning two prizes for the first flight longer than 100 meters, but the Wrights still refused to take him seriously. In their shop they worked on a new engine design, but instead of demonstrating it in flight, they turned their backs on public events and continued to set their sights on military sales.
It was a bad time to walk away from aviation, for in 1907 flying fever was beginning to grip the globe. Enthusiasts established competitions and offered prizes. The Wrights could easily have snapped up every honor available, but instead France dominated aviation development, as the pilots Charles and Gabriel Voisin and Louis Blériot managed increasingly longer “jumps.” In January 1908 Henri Farman was awarded the Deutsch-Archdeacon Grand Prix for flying a one-kilometer circle over a field near Paris two months earlier. Meanwhile, the Wrights continued to shift their focus from mechanical innovation–their strength–to sales.
As Wilbur told an associate in November 1907, “I want the business built up so as to get the greatest amount of money with as little work. Sell few machines at a big profit, so that we can close out…” None of the European deals came together, so the brothers returned to America late in 1907.
They put the finishing touches on their new engine and began a fresh push to sell planes to the United States government. Now, two years and many public French flights later, U.S. officials took the Wrights’ claims more seriously. In February 1908 the Army accepted their bid to build one airplane, the Model A, at the Wrights’ rock-bottom price of $25,000. At the same time, the French government also agreed to buy manufacturing rights to the Wright patents. The brothers’ strategy finally seemed to be paying off, and they looked forward to a busy spring.
With contracts in hand, the Wrights planned to fly only for their buyers. They spent a month at Kitty Hawk rebuilding and re-rigging their plane, and in May Orville flew for the first time in two and a half years. A few reporters managed to hide in the woods and got the story. The flights were international news.
Now that the cat was out of the bag, a flurry of public flights followed–Orville in America and Wilbur in Europe. They left competitors in awe and full of apologies for doubting their genius. The French had been snippy about the Wrights, questioning their achievements and holding up their own innovators as the true pioneers of aviation. Now they were apologetic. “Not one of the former detractors of the Wrights dare question, today, the previous experiments of the men who were truly the first to fly,” reported one French paper.
The Wrights had gotten back in business in the nick of time, or so it seemed, for within the next few years a handful of North American aircraft builders would take to the air as well. The Aerial Experiment Association, formed by Alexander Graham Bell and others, was one. Out of that group came the man over whom the Wright brothers would obsess until their deaths: Glenn Curtiss.
On the Fourth of July 1908, Curtiss piloted his speedy June Bug biplane more than one kilometer to win the $2,500 Scientific American Trophy and national acclaim. Wilbur Wright had flown farther in 1905, but with few witnesses. Now he refused to compete against a man who he believed was stealing his ideas. It was a fatal mistake. Curtiss realized the value of public opinion and would use it against the Wrights until they left the business. He also built beautiful and well-designed airplanes that quickly surpassed the Wright models.
Curtiss saw, as would all future aeronautical engineers, that the Wrights’ wing-warping system, or some variation on it, was the key to controlling a craft laterally. The Wrights threatened to sue anyone who incorporated that design feature into an airplane, yet no airplane could fly without it. The system involved changing the shape of the entire wing to alter its aerodynamic qualities. Curtiss got around the patent by using ailerons instead–separate, movable surfaces at the back of each wing, like those found on today’s airplanes. Curtiss’s system was much easier to use, yet the Wrights considered any form of three-dimensional control to fall under their patent, and they threatened a lawsuit. Curtiss ignored them.
In the meantime, the aviation industry was coming alive with talented competitors. In July 1909 Blériot crossed the English Channel in his innovative monoplane. In August Curtiss won the Bennett Trophy by setting a speed record of 47 miles per hour. He also sold the first consumer airplane, for just $5,000, compared with the Wrights’ asking price of $25,000.
The competitions had become sales tools. The public bought the planes they saw at the races, not the high-priced Wright machine that few had ever seen fly. The Army liked the Wrights’ plane, but so what? The future of aviation was being conceived in the public imagination and in the shops of a handful of eager inventors, not on military bases. At the 1909 flying meet in Rheims, France, where Curtiss won the Bennett Trophy, the skies were filled with 23 different airplanes, which broke all of the Wrights’ speed and altitude records. The brothers had declined to enter the competition, supposedly on the grounds that they didn’t compete against mere imitators. But the truth was that their airplane was no longer the industry standard. As they had feared all along, aviation enthusiasts had understood, copied and improved on it.
The Wrights chose not to fight back with technical innovations. Instead, in August 1909 they turned to the courts, slapping Curtiss with a long-threatened patent-infringement lawsuit. The litigation stretched out for eight years of trials and appeals, slowly suffocating the Wrights’ company.
In the brothers’ partnership, Wilbur had always been the idea man, with Orville fine-tuning and executing his plans. As the courtroom battles dragged on, Wilbur’s knowledge made him the key expert witness. He testified tirelessly about aeronautical design issues, explaining them in a clear, easily understood manner. His skill on the witness stand meant that his time at the company was limited. Orville was busy with production, so design innovation languished.
For example, the complicated control system, which required the pilot to manipulate three different levers with two hands, was never modified. By contrast, Curtiss airplanes had one integrated control wheel and a system of straps attached to the pilot’s upper body that controlled cables to move the ailerons, while Blériot’s planes had the stick-and-rudder arrangement that is standard in today’s fighter jets. According to Gen. Henry (“Hap”) Arnold, who learned to fly at a Wright school, “No two types of controls were the same in those days, and from the student’s point of view the Wright system was the most difficult.”
By the spring of 1914 the Curtiss Aeroplane Company had surpassed the Wrights and grown into the largest aircraft manufacturer in the United States. Wilbur was exhausted by the patent wars and aviation in general. He wrote to a friend, “We have been compelled to spend our time on business matters…during the past five years. When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.”
In April, Wilbur was taken ill during a trip to Boston. It turned out to be typhoid fever, and he was gone within a month. The world mourned his loss, with international newspaper coverage lauding him as “the man who made flying possible” and “inventor of the airplane.” Twenty-five thousand people attended the viewing before his funeral. After the death of his brother, Orville found himself at the helm of a foundering company.
By 1913 the Wright Model C was obsolete–slow, unstable and hard to maneuver, with a strong tendency to nose up and stall. But with the patent wars still in progress, Orville was reluctant to improve on the airplane’s basic design. That would have required adopting features from the very men he and Wilbur had accused of stealing. Pride compelled Orville to stick close to the original plan.
Unfortunately, it was becoming deadly. Nine people died in Wright Model B and C crashes between mid-1912 and mid-1913. Orville’s answer was to complete his work on the first automatic pilot, a pendulum-driven system that stabilized the aircraft. It was a revolutionary technology that finally won for Orville the prestigious Collier Trophy, which Curtiss had captured the previous two years. However, it was eclipsed within months by Lawrence Sperry’s gyroscope-driven system.
The dawn of 1914 brought good news, as the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Wrights’ patent suit, agreeing that Curtiss had infringed. This would have been the perfect time to shut down the competition by re-establishing the Wright monopoly. But Orville did not make a move, as the company manager Grover Loening lamented later: “In no time Curtiss…could have been closed down or bought up, and we would have seen a totally different development of flying starting here and spreading to Europe exactly as the telephone monopoly did…At any rate, it did not happen because of one man–Orville Wright. With the winning of the suit, his revenge on Curtiss seemed satisfied, and all he wanted was…royalties from everyone.” Orville felt vindicated. Any company building and selling airplanes would have to pay the Wright Company 20% of its receipts.
By this point Orville had also realized his limitations as a manager. He had no desire to oversee a team of research-and-development engineers, such as Curtiss had built. He hated running board meetings.
In October 1915 Orville sold the Wright Company to a group of investors for a reported $1.5 million. A year later Wright was merged with the Glenn L. Martin Company to become the Wright-Martin Company. By then, 12 years after he had made the world’s first controlled, powered heavier-than-air flight, Orville had separated himself from the business and was spending his time tinkering quietly in his Dayton home.
It wasn’t until after Orville left that the patent wars were finally settled. In early 1917 Curtiss began threatening to sue other aircraft manufacturers to protect his own growing collection of patents. At the urging of the U.S. government after its entry into World War I, a consortium of aviation companies banded together and brokered an agreement by which all members could pay a fee to license the patented technology. In return, Curtiss and Wright-Martin each received two million dollars in a one-time settlement and agreed to lay the patent issue to rest.
Without Orville running things, the Wright name eventually regained its luster, but not as a builder of airplanes, though the company did put together a few prototypes for the U.S. Navy in the early 1920s. The Wright-Martin Company, which was reorganized in 1919 as the Wright Aeronautical Company, became a world leader in aircraft-engine design, manufacturing the Wright Whirlwind, which was renowned for its reliability. Charles Lindbergh put one in his Ryan for his transatlantic flight.
Two years after Lindbergh, in 1929, the Wright name became even more potent in aviation manufacturing. Wright Aeronautical merged with Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor, becoming Curtiss-Wright . Twenty years after the Wrights sold their first airplane, struggling into business while fighting their debilitating patent wars, the company they had started finally became the second-largest aircraft and engine manufacturer in the nation (after the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation). But it had had to merge with its archenemy, Curtiss, to achieve this stature. And put its name second.