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Wright … or correct?

28 February 2010

Wright … or correct?

Two aircraft have a lot in common, though not obviously. The Wright Flyer of 1903 and the Lockheed SR-71 which began flights in the 1960s. The first to fly and the only that could regularly cruise at Mach 3 — aside from flying what could they possibly have in common?

Incredibly … they were both designed, tested and flown for years in complete secrecy from the public! I understand the secrecy aspect for the SR-71, but the Wright Flyer — secretly flying for years — it is not what I was taught!

Quite so.

What cannot be argued is the fact that the Wright Brothers were the first to fly an airplane that could also be laterally controlled — that is having the ability to direct the aircraft to the left or to the right as well as in pitch. It had an underpowered engine so the Flyer required a catapult launch to become airborne when substantial headwinds were not present. The catapult required not only a set of rails but also the tower to drop a 1000 pound (455kg) weight.

Before the Wright’s 1903 accomplishment, powered flight had been accomplished by a few. It can be argued that Félix du Temple de la Croix did so in 1874, as did Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1894, and Gustave Albin Whitehead (formerly Weißkopf) in 1901, as well as Richard Pearse in 1902 — although Pearse, having ailerons may indeed been the first to achieve powered and controlled flight. History will remain unclear with regard to Richard Pearse as he did not document his flights and retired his flight research after 1902. One wonders what he might have done with either Manly’s engine that powered the Langley Aerodrome (52 hp and 120 pounds, or 39kW and 55kg) of 1903, or one of Glen Curtiss’s 40 hp (30kW) that came to be in 1907.

Back in the day, aeronautical research was done by those mentioned above as well as several others, and the Wright Brothers relied on them for information and insight. Octave Chanute, an important man of the day, mentored the Wrights. There was a collegial cooperative atmosphere in the field.

Orville and Wilbur changed all of that. They had a business plan — the plan was one of conquest, to monopolize aviation to their sole profit. After the 1903 flight they spent another two years to ultimately refine their design, while marketing to various governments their flying machine — sight unseen. Perhaps unbelievably in these times, their strategy was successful and they soon became millionaires. A key part of this plan was the Wright patent. It is an incredible example of the poor patent laws of the time as they did not patent their wing warping design (by turning the rudder the wings were proportionally twisted), instead they were awarded the patent to the concept of lateral control, regardless of how the control was effected. Also, in following with the various business magnates of the time, they hired a strong legal staff. To summarize, the brothers received a patent for an idea only and had the resources to intimidate other aeronautical developers — and they did so aggressively and at every turn.

Paradoxically, although the Wrights were an important part of aviation progress they held up further advances for the better part of the next decade. They did this by bullying other developers and by continuing to use their dead-end design features such as the wing warping mechanism and not using wheels as landing gear.

Ironically, in spite of their efforts and pernicious suits laid against Glen Curtiss, their actions produced aviation advances beyond what they could do. Driving Curtiss into dire financial straits, Glen Curtiss designed an aircraft to make the first flight between cities. He did this in 1910, in the Albany Flyer, flying from Albany NY to New York City — and taking $10,000 in prize money. If the Wright Flyer is the birth of modern powered aviation, then the Albany Flyer’s flight is aviation first coming out of the crib.  Airplane flight was no longer confined to meadows and exhibitions, aircraft potential was now seen for speedy travel. Another prescient accomplishment was the carrying of a letter on the flight — presaging airmail.

Public sentiment was against the Wrights during this time. Wilbur Wright (Orville had passed on) continued to persevere with legal suits, becoming increasingly embittered, and all but stopping the Wright’s role in developing aeronautical science. Curiously, they have become exalted though we use none of the technology they developed. Glen Curtiss developed many of the advances that we use to this day and he is all but unknown.


I think that it has to do with the public relations campaign of Wilbur Wright through 1948, decades of PR work, and Curtiss’s unassuming personality as well as early death at the age of 36 in 1930. As we too often experience, the memory of the general public is fleeting, at best, and the media overall is less than complete in its reporting — it seems the public prefers its news as spoonfuls of baby food as opposed to an adult meal. Curtiss developed and willingly shared what he learned, the Wrights did not. Unfortunately, willingly sharing goes unheralded in society. We should know about the developments made by all but we should recall that Glen Curtiss’s mind and hands made for the aviation we know today. We should recognize the Wrights for being part of a progression and not as a singular technological leap forward as is taught today. It was the aileron (first successfully implemented by Curtiss) that ultimately gave the airplane lateral control, not the Wright wing warping design.

If I have tempted you to learn about Glen Curtiss then it is my pleasure to inform you of options:

  • I will publish a post about Glen Curtiss soon
  • There is a museum in Hammondsport NY, the Glen H. Curtiss Museum
  • Unlocking the Sky: Glen Hammond Curtiss and the race to invent the airplane — Seth Shulman, 2002, ISBN 0-06-019633-5, 220 pp.

More later 🙂

Errata: I’ve corrected the date and and aircraft name with regard to the record setting flight from Albany NY to New York City NY

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