The Wright Brothers were the two great inventors of the first controlled, heavier-than-air craft. Unfortunately for them, many other people made the same claim, or ignored their achievement.
On 17 December, 1903, the Wrights managed to build a craft capable of heavier-than-air flight and applied for a patent. Over the years it took to grant this patent, they became obsessed with protecting their inventions. They designed parts of their craft to blend in with the sky and for years refused to allow photographs to be taken of it. They wouldn't fly publicly until 1907, fearing that rival aviators would steal their patent.
Although they were the first to produce a controlled, heavier-than-air craft, they were by no means the first to try.
Samuel Langley, a one-time administrator for the Smithsonian Institute, used a great deal of the museum's money to build a engine-driven, heavier-than-air craft that was large enough to carry a pilot. His final design, the Aerodrome A, was launched using a catapult from a houseboat near Widewater, Virginia. Unfortunately, the machine splintered and was useless, hitting the water, according to a reporter 'like a handful of mortar'.
Octave Chanute, a long-time friend of the Wrights, also attempted flight. He would publicly defend them when organisations would later attempt to destroy their credibility.
They were granted a patent on 22 May, 1906, to the great distress of much of the aviation community. Their patent included several specific things, such as their famous technique of wing-warping. It also patented lateral control — a concept so basic to flight that almost every flier that followed would have to pay the Wrights royalties... in theory.
From the start, Europeans completely ignored the rights of the Wrights and didn't issue the patent in their countries. This meant that the French and the Germans were free to produce and sell the Wrights' designs without any restrictions.
Meanwhile, in America, Alexander Graham Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association on 30 September, 1907, in order to create a practical aeroplane. The Wrights respected Bell for his work with the telephone and trusted him not to violate their patents.
The AEA designed and built the Red Wing, which was in flagrant violation of their patents, but was not used for commercial purposes. It was tested on 17 March, 1908, and crashed into a frozen lake after travelling just 319 feet. It was wrecked, and the AEA didn't attempt to repair it.
After this, the AEA produced a similar aeroplane called the White Wing which had similar limitations — it crashed a lot. The first real success of the Association was the June Bug. It was designed and piloted by Glen Curtiss — a long-time rival of the Wrights. It won a tidy prize from American Scientific Magazine for flying one km in a straight line. The Wrights contacted the group and warned them that they were in violation of their patent for using their control systems for a commercial purpose.
They flew three more aeroplanes, the most successful of which was the Silver Dart, flown in Nova Scotia1. After this, the AEA disbanded. Curtiss joined an aviation enthusiast named Augustus Herring, who claimed to have patents from before the Wrights (this was, in fact a lie). They formed the Curtiss-Herring company.
The First Shots
Patent problems became heated in 1909. The Curtiss-Herring Company manufactured and sold an aeroplane called the Golden Flier to the Aeronautical Society of New York on 26 July, 1909, without paying royalties to the Wrights. This was the breaking point for the Wrights, who quickly filed two suits against Curtiss.
This matter could have been settled relatively easily, as the Aeronautical Society agreed to pay the Wrights. Curtiss, however, decided to fight for it.
The matter dragged on for several years. The Wright Brothers and Curtiss's funds depleted and both unsuccessfully attempted to settle several times. The brothers were in great distress, and Wilbur died in 1912, at least partly due to the stress of these battles.
Finally, in 1913, the problem appeared to have been sorted. Orville won, and the courts ordered Curtiss to stop manufacturing aircraft in violation of the Wrights' patents. Orville was also awarded a small sum of money.
It Drags On...
Unexpectedly, Curtiss was encouraged by automobile maker Henry Ford. He had won a similar suit earlier and loaned the lawyer that had won it to Curtiss. He had a new angle.
If you remember, Samuel Langley had tried to produce a successful aircraft called the Aerodrome A which was launched from a houseboat. Curtiss's lawyer attempted to explain that Langley was in fact the first to invent the aeroplane, although it was destroyed at launch. He tried to explain that Curtiss's plane was designed after the Aerodrome A, not the Wrights' designs. They rebuilt the Aerodrome A, falsely claiming that it was exactly how it was when Langley launched it. The court decided against this, but delayed the verdict. Legal battles started yet again.
However, the patent wars abruptly ended when another war known as World War One started. All patent litigations were ordered to stop immediately and royalties were reduced to 1%. Orville had previously demanded 20% royalties on essentially any controlled flying machine. The battles were set to resume after the war, but by that time, Orville had sold his company and retired.
Later, Orville would estimate the entire costs of the patent wars amounted to around 150,000 dollars, a princely sum for that time period.