The Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss

We all know that the Wright brothers hold the title for first in flight – on December 17, 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first sustained and controlled human flights – but for this post let’s clear the air about some of the fallacies I just watched in a “documentary” on Netflix last night (it aired on NatGeo on June 1, 2015). Even though the viewer is given the following warning, I fear that many will not heed it.

“This program includes dramatizations inspired by history. Some events have been altered for dramatic purposes.”

Instead of outlining each of the incorrect statements or over dramatizations, I’ll just outline the basic story of these three incredible American engineers and innovators.

The rivalry between the Wright brothers and Curtis mostly began after the Wrights filed for (and won) a patent lawsuit which asserted their ownership of the skies via motorized plane. Their patent was No. 821,393 for a “flying machine.”

Glenn Curtiss rode the world’s first V-8 motorcycle to a speed of 136 mph and became known as “the fastest man on earth.”

Starting out, Glenn Curtis was a bicycle shop owner (like the Wrights) and probably the best engine mechanic/designer in America at the time. Eventually, Curtiss morphed his bicycles and engines into one, creating powerful motorcycles. “In 1903, on Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day), Curtiss used a V-twin motorcycle to win a hill climb, win a ten-mile race, and set a new one-mile speed record (Langley, 2009, para. 6).” Catching wind of the Wrights flying machine, Curtiss tried to sell his engines to them to be used in their aircraft, but the Wrights refused the business. Instead, Curtiss continued his work on engines and within five years had become known as “the fastest man on earth.”

That same year Curtiss joined the Aerial Experiment Association, or AEA, a group founded by Alexander Graham Bell, the famous inventor. Shortly after, Curtiss offered a free engine to the Wrights for use in their plane, but again they refused. The next year Curtiss flew a plane called the June Bug which he designed, created and fashioned with one of his engines. In coordination with the AEA, Curtiss became the second in North America to design, build, and fly airplanes. Curtiss had much success in building new, inventive aircraft, but because of the patent the Wrights held, he was unable to sell them without embarking into a long patent war.

Meanwhile, Wilbur showed off the Wright’s flying capabilities in New York with a two-mile flight around Governor’s Island as well as did a loop around the Statue of Liberty. Wilbur Wright also “flew ten miles up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb, and then returned to base. His 20-mile flight lasted over 33 minutes, averaging 36 miles per hour. An estimated one million New Yorkers witnessed at least some part of his flight (Langley, 2009, para. 21).”

Less than a year later, Curtiss beat the Wright’s record by successfully flying 151 miles. This flight lasted 2 hours and 51 minutes, and averaged 52 miles per hour, due in large part to the engine design skills. It was the longest airplane flight to date, and won for Curtiss both a $10,000 prize and permanent possession of the Scientific American trophy. (Langley, 2009)

Wilbur Wright’s funeral procession passes through the gates of Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery on June 1, 1912.

In 1912 Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever. Almost two years later the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of New York ruled in favor of the Wright Company in its suit against Glenn Curtiss. The ruling stated that Curtiss could not manufacture, use, or sell flying machines which infringe on the Wright’s patent (The Wright Brother’s Timeline, 2016). Curtiss continued to create airplanes that were different in design than the Wrights, keeping Orville in a continued patent infringement lawsuit.

In 1914, the Smithsonian Institution contracted with Curtiss to verify if Samuel Langley’s 1903 Aerodrome was the true first powered flight machine. After 29 years, Orville finally proved that Curtiss had made adjustments to Langley’s plane, rendering it able to fly when in actuality, the original plane could not. The Wright Flyer now hangs at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC as the world’s first “powered heavier-than-air flying machine.” (Langley, 2009)

In 1917, with World War I well underway, the U.S. government pressured Wright and Curtiss to resolve their patent differences in an effort to meet the war’s aviation needs. In the end, they both received cash settlements for resolving their disputes and patent war finally ended. With the suit over, Curtiss was able to manufacture and sell innovative aircraft to his biggest client, the U.S. War Department.

“In 1929, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation took shape from twelve Wright and Curtiss affiliated companies, and became the second-largest firm in America. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation still exists today. The company’s official website describes it as ‘a diversified global provider of highly engineered products and services of motion control, flow control, and metal treatment.’ In the rough economic market of late 2008, the firm still reported assets of over two billion dollars and a net income of over 109 million dollars.” (Langley, 2009, para. 36)slideshow-history-image11


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