Login | January 20, 2019

How legal battles shaped Wrights’ 115-year legacy

CSABA SUKOSD
Supreme Court
Public Information Office

Published: December 31, 2018

Two brothers from Ohio forever changed the history of humanity’s heights when they were the first to fly an airplane more than a century ago. However, their ability to innovate that invention was limited due to legal battles that thwarted growth and, according to the Wright brothers’ family, led to one of their deaths.

Monday, Dec. 17, marked the 115th anniversary since Wilbur and Orrville Wright achieved flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the same day in 1903. While many are familiar with their story as bicycle mechanics before they became aviators, few are aware of their creation’s aftermath and how the brothers spent years involved in court proceedings protecting the patent of their “flying machine,” as it was originally known.

After their accomplishment, the Wrights submitted all their documentation – videos, photographs, drawings – as proof of their original product and distinguishing from others. Since they couldn’t patent the entire plane, they focused on the element that kept it in the air: the controls.

“[They came] up with a means of controlling an airplane in all three axes of motion: pitch, roll, and yaw. Nobody else [was] going to be able to build a practical flying machine without using [their] ideas about control,” said Tom Crouch, a Dayton native and curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

The three-year patent process was one part entrepreneurial. The Wrights wanted to build and sell planes as well as receive royalties and licensing fees from those who used their design. More importantly, they wanted it as a point of pride and acknowledgement from others for what they achieved. Experts believe that their motive to pursue numerous lawsuits came from a “What’s right is right…” belief fostered from their upbringing in a religious household. Their father, Milton, was a clergyman.

“The drive that they had to be credited with what they had done and have the respect of people was so much more important than however amount of money they might have made from it,” said Dawne Dewey, who’s the head of special collections and archives at Wright State University’s Dunbar Library.

While they were able to sell airplanes built at their Dayton factory, their engineering and production levels were hindered by their ongoing court battles. As competition came from many to make money in the burgeoning industry, one rival stood out in his maneuvering – both in the air and through legal loopholes. Fellow aviator and plane manufacturer Glenn Curtiss claimed his design was different and carried on a patent war with the Wrights that lasted for years.

Along with the financial and industrial ramifications, the years-long litigation took a physical toll on the family, namely Wilbur Wright. He bore the brunt of the legal legwork with the company’s lawyers, which started in 1908. Four years into a decade-long ordeal, he died in 1912 of typhoid at 45.

“The court battles, the travelling, the trying to defend themselves, really wore them down… it had an effect on how Orrville conducted the rest of his life after Wilbur died,” added Dewey.

Within three years of his younger brother’s passing, Orrville Wright sold the company and transitioned to the periphery of American aviation, largely as an advisor. In 1929, Wright Aeronautical – the successor to the Wright-Martin Company founded in 1919 – merged with the Curtiss Company in 1929 and still exists today as Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

That wasn’t the first time the two sides came together. A decade earlier, the government forced them and other competing companies to share their patent secrets and build planes for the military during World War I. Much like when the Wright brothers had their breakthrough in 1903, the advancements produced in the Manufacturers Aircraft Association benefitted all the generations that followed.

“[It] which becomes an organization that literally does have enormous impact on what happens to the growth of American aviation legally for the rest of the 20th century,” said Crouch.


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