Birdmen

The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies

By Lawrence Goldstone

Ballantine Books. 448 pp. $28

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Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis


On Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright powered into the air and into history over a North Carolina beach. About the same time, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a twentysomething from western New York, was building engines for bicycles - actually, perfecting the motorcycle.

In the next 10 years, Curtiss would invent "the seaplane, retractable landing gear, twist-grip throttles for motorcycles, the enclosed cockpit," writes Lawrence Goldstone in his fascinating new work Birdmen. He also conducted "the first simulated bombing run and first use of firearms from an aircraft, and delivered the first radio communication from the skies."

And in those same 10 years, he would be locked in a vicious, costly patent infringement lawsuit filed by the Wrights that would, according to Goldstone,  seriously repress the progress of early aviation.

Goldstone, author of Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903 (2011) and Lefty: An American Odyssey (2012), a biography of baseball great Lefty Gomez, focuses here on the early days of flight and the pioneers of aviation.

There was German engineer Otto Lilienthal, who wore wooden-framed fabric wings 30 feet across as he experimented with gliders in the 1890s, and Paris-born American engineer Octave Chanute, who became the conduit "for the growing streams of theory and data then being generated about 'the flying problem.' "

Goldstone continues to Samuel Pierpont Langley's two disastrous Potomac dunks in 1903, Louis Bleriot's cross-Channel flight in 1909, barnstormer Lincoln Beachey's hair-raising twist and dive stunts, and all those unfortunate fliers who died horribly in countless crashes.

The author also covers parachute inventor Thomas Scott Baldwin, or "Cap't Tom," as he preferred, who relentlessly sought to make controlled balloon flight the future of aviation. But, "Cap't Tom" experienced a disconcerting moment when he discovered at a $100,000 prize competition in October 1904 that his balloon wouldn't lift off because he had become too fat. On the spot, he frantically found and trained a thin, young man to fly the balloon and went on to win.

Aside from the colorful early history of aviation, Goldstone's overarching narrative concerns the Wright brothers-Glenn Curtiss patent infringement litigation, which threads throughout the book. Wilbur, the dominant Wright brother, and Curtiss were well-matched combatants: "Both were obsessive and serious . . . dour . . . neither of these men would ever take even one small step backward in a confrontation," Goldstone writes.

The Wright brothers' father, Milton, the author writes, was the uncompromising bishop of Dayton, Ohio's United Church of the Brethren. For more than 30 years, Milton battled with church officials over church doctrine, often with Wilbur's help, until he eventually broke away and made himself the leader of a splinter church. Goldstone quotes Wright brothers biographer Tom Crouch (The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright), who wrote that from such a headstrong, combative father, the brothers "came to believe in the essential depravity of mankind." Non-family members -- the whole outside world -- were not to be trusted.

The Wrights were highly secretive about their flying machine; they didn't demonstrate their plane publicly until August 1908, almost five years after its invention. And although Wilbur and Orville were true scientific-technical geniuses, they were greedy. They were also ruthless with and suspicious of competitors. They had suspected Curtiss of stealing their ideas ever since he visited their Dayton workshop in September 1906 (upon their invitation). Specifically, they thought he had taken their idea about "wing warping," in which pulleys are manipulated to make the wingtips go up or down, enabling the plane to turn in a desired direction.

The Wrights were attempting to patent any device (in this case "wing warping") which affected lateral stability, according to Goldstone. Since all planes needed lateral stability to fly (as you need lateral stability to stay riding on a bicycle), the Wrights were actually trying to patent controlled flight itself, in effect, to monopolize the entire future airplane business.

As Wilbur Wright unequivocally stated in a Jan. 20, 1910, letter to Octave Chanute: "It is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal use of our system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes it to us."

Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.