The Wright Brothers historic flight of December 17, 1903, is the stuff legends are made of. Although there had been many others who attempted flight and flew aircrafts before them, like their mentor and predecessor Samuel Pierpont Langley, Wilbur and Orville Wright were considered pioneers in the "art of flying" (McIntyre, 1994). Langley was famous for the flight of the "Aeorodrome" that plunged into the Potomac River just days before the Wright Brothers successful flight in 1903. He bore the wrath of Congressman who were upset because of the $50,000 loss of tax payer dollars that had been utilized to finance the flight.
Because of the Wright Brothers 'pioneer status' they were afforded "broad interpretations of their patents from the U.S. courts" (McIntyre, 1994). As such, the brothers held a virtually monopoly on human flight, and the brothers found themselves regularly having to defend infringements on their patent technology. The Wright Brothers were considered highly principled And because of their principles, they found themselves regularly engaged in battles to protect what was theirs.
The greatest challenge to the Wright Brothers patent in the United States came from inventor, Glenn Hammond Curtiss. He and the Wrights not only had aviation in common but both their early inventions were in bicycle making (Wicks, 2010). Curtiss' first flights were under the auspices of Thomas Baldwin, a local businessman for whom Curtiss is said to have supplied motors. Unhappy with the awkwardly slow airships, Curtiss eagerly accepted an invitation to work with Alexander Graham Bell; best known for his later invention of the telephone. Bell considered Curtiss to be "the greatest engine maker in the country" (House, 2009). He considered Curtiss necessary and invaluable. Curtiss accepted the position of chief engineer for Bell's organization, the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) (House, 2009). At the time, Bell is said to have been experimenting with multi-cell, tetrahedral kites with the proposed goal of applying that brand of technology to practical flying machines. As his work stalled, Curtiss offered the suggestion of contacting the Wright Brothers in an attempt to gain new inspiration and insight into how best to transfer the technologies; if at all (49). At Curtiss' behest, Bell's association secretary, Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge send correspondence to the Wright Brothers in January 2008, requesting a series of specific questions regarding air pressure theory as well as construction techniques be addressed (McIntyre, 1994).
As the Wrights were men of principle and high moral character, and they perceived Alexander Graham Bell to be a principled man as well, they were reportedly willing to share their expertise with the scientists for the purpose of research. All of the questions posited by Selfridge were answered by Orville Wright, and they referred to their own patent for any additional information that was needed.
Curtiss built several aircrafts and managed a series of flights under the auspices of the AEA during 1908 (Shulman, 2002), and on July 4th, successfully flew the June Bug approximately 5300 feet capturing a trophy from the Scientific American for the first public flight in the United States over a one km straightway course. Orville Wright, displeased with the 'feature similarities' between the June Bug and their patented technology, advised Curtiss that they were in violation of the Wright Brothers patent; serving to remind him that their assistance to the AEA had been for the expressed purpose research only (55). "We did not intend," he declared, "to give permission to use the patented features of our machines for exhibitions or in a commercial way" (Polmar, 2011).
Orville is said to have been suspicious of Curtiss' intentions from early on due to the fact that early in 1909, Curtiss discontinued his association with the AEA and secured a charter from the State of New York to manufacture commercial airplanes for commercial sale. And he was successful with his first commercial sale shortly after on June 26th. The first plan Curtiss sold was for $5,000; a great sum of money for the time. The Wright Brothers, although desirous of moving into commercial sales, had not yet been successful in doing so, were reportedly infuriated by Curtiss' success. But they were not the only ones. Alexander Graham Bell is said to have also been upset enough by Curtiss's successful crossover into commercialization that he contacted Curtiss for an explanation (O'Connor, 2011). Needless to say, Curtiss was not dismayed by the inquiries or upset of his aviation counterparts and moved forward with his plans. The next 'insult to injury' came when Curtiss' arranged for and successfully flew in front of 5,000 paying spectators. Moreover, Curtiss's successful flights garnered him the first pilot's license in June 1911. Orville and Wilbur's pilot licenses were 4th and 5th, respectively (38).
This is said to have been the beginning of the patent wars between Curtiss and the Wright Brothers. The infamous case of Wright v Curtiss is said to have languished in the courts for approximately five years. The work was said to have been exhaustive as the Brothers were often required to travel the country giving depositions and testifying, and finding themselves having to teach the basic tenets of aeronautics to judges and court personnel who had never seen what the Brothers and Curtis were fighting about (Wicks, 2000).
In 1912 while traveling, Wilbur Wright is said to have become ill on a Boston trip to testify against Curtiss. As a result of eating contaminated shellfish, Wilbur contracted typhoid fever and died shortly thereafter. Orville attributed his brother's death to the many other ills brought about by Curtiss' "impudence" (McIntyre, 1996). Orville was described as more determined than ever to continue the fight to protect what he and his brother had established. Some 18 months after Wilbur Wrights' death, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Wrights (Boyne, 2003). Curtiss was ordered to immediately cease and desist all use of the Wrights' patented technology which effectively grounded Curtiss. Once again, unfettered by the court loss, Curtiss "regrouped and developed a new strategy" (McIntyre, 1994). Because the courts accepted the Wright Flyer as the world's first airplane, the brothers would always have priority rights conferred. However, if Curtiss could prove that another aircraft preceded the famous flight of December 17, 1903, or at least had the capability of flying by that timeframe, the patent held by the Wrights would be significantly diminished (Boyne, 2003). With this as his goal, Curtiss reportedly contacted Charles Wilcott of the Smithsonian, requesting he be loaned what was left of Langley's Aerodrome.
According to aviation historians, Langley had died believing his machine was flawed and failed due to the launching system (Shulman, 2002). However, the Wrights, and the majority of those who studied the Aerodrome concluded that the crash was the result of faulty structural design. When Curtiss offered to rebuild the Aerodrome and to test fly it, with the expressed and proclaimed intent of vindicating Langley, Walcott is said to have acquiesced to Curtiss' request and eagerly agreed (57). Walcott was willing to cooperate with the endeavor that would restore his predecessor's reputation. What was not said, however, was the significant financial reward Curtiss stood to gain if the courts accepted the demonstration as proof that flight occurred at the hands of Langley prior to the flight by the Wrights.
Curtiss rebuilt the Aerodrome with multiple design and material changes (Wolldridge, 2003). Curtiss is said to have re-braced the wings because of their complete collapse during the Langley flight, and substituted an advanced state of the art engine. Curtiss was said to be successful in making several short flights across Keula Lake near Hammondsport, because of the alterations to Langley's original plan. He was able to record his flight by securing pictures of the Aerodrome flying a few feet about the water. Subsequent to the flights, Curtiss removed the new engine, restored the Aerodrome to its original state and returned it to the Smithsonian.
Albert Zahm, head of the Smithsonian's Langley Laboratory was a witness for Curtiss against the Wrights' claims of patent, had been named by Walcott to observe Curtiss' tests of the Aerodrome. He recorded in the 1914 Smithsonian Annual Report that the Langley machine had been tested "without modification" which was clearly not true (). The report of 1915 went further to suggest that the "tests thus far made have shown that former Secretary Langley had succeeded in building the first aeroplane capable of sustained and free flight with a man"(Wolldridge, 2003). The Smithsonian subsequently placed the restored Aerodrome on display in the Arts and Industries Building with a label indicating that it was "the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight" (65).
When Orville Wright learned of this he was less than pleased due to the willful distortion of the truth by a "major repository of historical artifacts" representing the most significant threat to the Wrights' place in the history books (McIntyre, 1996). Despite Orville's…