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Excerpt from Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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

by Lawrence Goldstone

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  • First Published:
    May 2014, 448 pages
    Apr 2015, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Print Excerpt

Genius Extinguished

At 3:15 a.m. on May 30, 1912, Wilbur Wright died peacefully in his own bed in the family home at 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio, surrounded by his father, Milton; his sister, Katharine; and his three brothers, Lorin, Reuchlin, and Orville. Wilbur had contracted typhoid fever one month earlier from, the speculation went, eating tainted clam broth in a Boston restaurant. At five feet ten and 140 pounds, his body had lacked the strength to fight off an ailment that in the coming decades would be routinely vanquished with antibiotics. He was forty-five years old.

America had lost one of its heroes, one of two men to solve the riddle of human flight, and messages of praise and condolence poured into Dayton from around the world. More than one thousand telegrams arrived within twenty-four hours of Wilbur's death. President William Howard Taft—who at 350 pounds could never himself be a passenger in a Wright Flyer, although his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt had been—issued a statement declaring Wilbur to be the "father of the great new science of aeronautics," who would be remembered on a par with Robert Fulton and Alexander Graham Bell. Aeronautics magazine exclaimed, "Mr. Wright was revered by all who knew him, he was honored by an entire world, it was a privilege, never to be forgotten, to talk with him.

Across the nation, newspapers and magazines decried the sad stroke of luck that had robbed the nation of one of its great men. At 7 Hawthorn Street, however, members of the Wright family did not believe Wilbur's death to have been a result of bad luck at all. To them, Wilbur had been as good as murdered, hounded to his grave by a competitor so dishonest, so unscrupulous, so lacking in human feeling as to remain a family scourge as long as any of them remained alive.

Glenn Curtiss.

The bitter, decade-long Wright–Curtiss feud pitted against each other two of the nation's most brilliant innovators and shaped the course of American aviation. The ferocity with which Wilbur Wright attacked and Glenn Curtiss countered first launched America into preeminence in the skies and then doomed it to mediocrity. It would take the most destructive conflict in human history to undo the damage.

The combatants were well matched. As is often the case with those who despise each other, Curtiss and Wilbur were sufficiently alike to have been brothers themselves. Both were obsessive and serious, and one is hard-pressed to find a photograph of either, even as a child, in which he does not appear dour. Wilbur Wright was the son of a minister, Curtiss the grandson of one. Wilbur was the grandson of a carriage maker, Curtiss the son of a harness maker. Each came to aviation via the same route—racing, repairing, and building bicycles—and each displayed the amalgam of analytic instincts and dogged perseverance that a successful inventor requires. Most significant, neither of these men would ever take even one small step backward in a confrontation.

They may have been alike, but they were not the same. Wilbur Wright is one of the greatest intuitive scientists this nation has ever produced. Completely self-taught, he made spectacular intellectual leaps to solve a series of intractable problems that had eluded some of history's most brilliant men. Curtiss was not Wilbur's equal as a theoretician—few were—but he was a superb craftsman, designer, and applied scientist. In physics, he would be Enrico Fermi to Wilbur's Albert Einstein.

After Wilbur's death, Orville attempted to maintain the struggle, but while his hatred for Curtiss matched Wilbur's, his talents and temperament did not. Many subsequent accounts have treated the Wright brothers as indistinguishable equals, but Orville viscerally as well as chronologically never ceased being the little brother. As family correspondence makes clear, his relationship with Wilbur was a good deal more complex than is generally assumed and after his brother's death, Orville was never able to muster the will to pursue their mutual obsessions with the necessary zeal.

Excerpted from Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone. Copyright © 2014 by Lawrence Goldstone. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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