Almost everyone has heard of Kitty Hawk and seen the iconic picture of the Wilbur brothers' first flight. One would think that such a ground-breaking achievement would accelerate the pace of technical breakthroughs in aviation. But, as Lawrence Goldstone's interesting book explains, progress was to be had only in fits and starts.
For one thing, not many were convinced that the future of aviation was in "heavier-than-air" flight ("heavier-than-air" machines use aerodynamic displacement achieved by some kind of motor to realize lift as opposed to "lighter than air" crafts which use the principles of buoyancy to the same effect. Airplanes are part of the former while hot-air balloons and dirigibles comprise the latter group). The second reason for the halting progress was a protracted patent fight that proved distracting to the creative process. It is this court battle that forms the backbone of Goldstone's Birdmen.
As the book's subtitle The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies efficiently explains, the brothers were pitted against Glenn Curtiss, another powerhouse in aviation. Curtiss met the Wright brothers at the Dayton Fair in 1906 and, while the elements of exactly what transpired between them remain a mystery, Curtiss got into the airplane game as well and emerged as a strong competitor. It should be clarified here that in 1906 the Wright brothers already had a patent for a "Flying Machine" granted for a particular mechanism of flight control.
The Wright brothers were convinced that Curtiss had generously borrowed primary design elements from their plane, even taking measurements for future use. He thought otherwise. As Goldstone writes, "Curtiss believed, as did most others at the time, that fundamental ideas, even great scientific insights, were public domain and that only mechanical devices or specific applications were proprietary." The brothers sued for license fees in a long protracted patent court battle that would take its toll in multiple ways. By the time the case was finally settled in 1914, the basic principles of aviation had become common knowledge enough to frustrate the brothers who were for a while determined to chase after every violator.
Goldstone sets this battle against the backdrop of progress in aviation and, equally, the growing use of exhibition flying as a way of making large amounts of money in the early years of the twentieth century. Birdmen brilliantly showcases the Vaudevillian atmosphere that was part of these times with moneyed men staging ever-grander exhibitions highlighting incredible feats of derring-do. Whether with a Curtiss or a Wright flyer, these birdmen took to the skies to perform bold (and some would say, foolish) tricks to get at ever-larger pots of gold. An ad for a Curtiss flying school perhaps summed it up best:
"LEARN TO FLY.
Fame and Fortunes for Aviators.
Good Pilots Find Immediate Employment at Big Salaries."
An entire parade of aviation heroes walks through these pages John Moisant, Harry Atwood, Ralph Johnstone, and many more. In fact, the many individual exhibition flights outlined get tiring after a while. Goldstone's book occasionally stalls as he seems intent on cramming every detail and event unearthed as part of what is obviously very intensive research.
Goldstone also outlines practically every nuance about the patent fight and this makes for slow reading, especially since the field of view is restricted mostly to the players' lives on the airfield. While we do learn of the Wright brothers' strict religious views (their father was a pastor in Ohio), very little else comes through clearly about their personal lives.
Despite these drawbacks, Birdmen soars in having us weigh the costs of shared knowledge on the one hand and just rewards on the other. U.S. patent law is designed to further innovation by granting license fees to the inventor for a period of time, usually 14 to 20 years. If another party wants to use the innovation while under patent, they will need to pay the original inventor. After the license expires, the body of knowledge becomes common and can be freely used as a base for further innovation. While patent wars will take place as long as innovations are created, it is particularly illuminating to see that the schools of thought about shared knowledge that were de rigueur during the Wrights' time remain relevant today. For example, Octave Chanute, a prominent voice in aviation and an early supporter of the Wrights, stated his views quite clearly: "Ideas...must be evaluated by peers and, if they showed promise, tested and incorporated in a body of knowledge available to all. Innovation should be rewarded, certainly, and inventions patented, but the process would be best served openly and collegially." Computer techies today might still use this argument stating that programming platforms such as Windows and Apple, which are more "closed" in nature stifle advancement as opposed to more "open source" programming environments such as Linux.
Goldstone is also successful at showing that hard work and brains alone might not be enough to reach the goal post. Sometimes a generous dose of good marketing and public relations is important to build an image in the public eye. The Wright brothers' relentless pursuit of license infringers, combined with the fact that they held their cards close to their chest, did not do them any favors or win any hearts and minds. As Goldstone writes: "Newspaper reports almost always mentioned the Wrights in a way that virtually begged for the brothers to provide some verification of the rumors of their success. The nation was eager to make them heroes. But Wilbur and Orville would not be moved."
"Are High-Tech Patent Wars Stifling Innovation? Would We Rather Spend Billions Developing Products or Defending Lawsuits?" This was the title of a recent seminar held at Golden Gate University's law school in San Francisco. As Lawrence Goldstone's well-researched journalistic account effectively shows, the answer is not as black and white as all that. There's plenty of gray in between.
This review was originally published in May 2014, and has been updated for the April 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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