Featured image: Orville Wright/Public domain

5/22/1906: Wright Brothers' “Flying Machine” Patent

DALLAS – Today, in 1906, the Wright brothers were granted U.S. Patent 821,393 for their “Flying Machine” with the help of an Ohio patent attorney.

In 1902, the Wright brothers were able to control their glider in all three axes of flight: pitch, roll, and yaw. The simultaneous use of roll control (with wing-warping) and yaw control (with a rear rudder) was their breakthrough discovery. Pitch was operated by a forward elevator.

The brothers applied for a patent on their control system in March 1903. They were turned down for the submission, which they had written themselves. They employed Ohio patent attorney Henry Toulmin in early 1904, and they were granted U.S. Patent 821,393 for a “Flying Machine” on May 22, 1906.

The Wright Brothers, Orville (left) and Wilbur (right), with the 1904 Wright Flyer II at Huffman Prairie. Photo: dominio público

The Patent

The significance of the patent is that it claims to be a modern and useful method of controlling a flying machine, whether controlled or not.

The technique of wing-warping is mentioned, but the patent expressly notes that other techniques, such as ailerons, may be used to adjust the outer portions of a machine’s wings to different angles on the right and left sides to obtain lateral roll control instead of wing-warping.

In exchange for U$100,000 in cash, 40% of the company’s stock, and a 10% royalty on all aircraft sold, the Wright Brothers sold their patent rights to the Wright Brothers Company in 1909. Financial Barons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Theodore P. Shorts, Allan A. Ryan, and Morton F. Plant, were among the US$1m investors.

And so, the Wright Patent Wars began at this time in an effort to gain a monopoly on aircraft production in the United States.

Wilbur, left, and Orville Wright sit on the porch steps of their Dayton, Ohio, home in June 1909. Photo: Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

The Wright Patent Wars

Many people involved in similar efforts at the time claimed credit for their successes, whether justified or not, soon after the Wright Brothers demonstrated their airplane. “A highly significant fact that, until the Wright Brothers succeeded, all attempts with heavier-than-air machines were dismal failures,” wrote the New York Times in 1910, “but since they showed that the thing could be done, everybody seems to be able to do it.”

This rivalry soon devolved into a patent war, with 12 major lawsuits, widespread media attention, and even a covert attempt to discredit the Wright Brothers by Glenn Curtiss and the Smithsonian Institution with the help of Charles D. Walcott, at the time head of the institution.

In 1908, the Wrights issued a warning to Glenn Curtiss, advising him not to benefit from flying or selling aircraft with ailerons. In 1909, Curtiss sold an airplane to the Aeronautic Society of New York after refusing to pay the Wrights license fees. The Wrights filed a lawsuit, which kicked off a years-long court battle.

In January 1914, a United States Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Wrights’ victory over the Curtiss corporation, which managed to escape punishment through legal maneuvering. Moreover, it took until 1928 for the Smithsonian Board of Regents to pass a resolution acknowledging that the Wright Brothers deserved the credit for “the first successful flight with a power-propelled heavier-than-air machine carrying a man.”

Front view of the 1905 Wright Flyer III with Orville Wright at the controls. Photo: Front view of the 1905 Wright Flyer III with Orville Wright at the controls

Legacy of the Patent Wars

In 1917, the Wright Company and the Curtiss Company, the two largest patent holders, effectively hindered the development of new aircraft, which were urgently needed when the United States entered World War I. Following a recommendation from the newly formed National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the US government pressed the industry to form the Manufacturer’s Aircraft Association, a cross-licensing body, ie, a Patent pool.

Both aircraft manufacturers were required to join the association, and each member was required to pay a comparatively small blanket fee (for the use of aviation patents) for each airplane manufactured; of this, the Wright-Martin and Curtiss companies would receive the majority of the money before their respective patents expired.

The litigation tarnished the Wright brothers’ public profile, which had previously been known as heroes. Critics said that the brothers’ activities slowed the progress of aviation and compared them unfavorably to European inventors who collaborated more freely. It is said the Patent wars were one of the reasons US fighter pilots flew European-made aircraft during WWI.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Photo: NASA

Wright Brothers Field

On an interesting note, Wright Brothers Field is the first Martian take-off and landing area for NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, on the neighboring planet in 2021. As part of the Mars 2020 mission, Ingenuity was delivered to Mars and stored under the Perseverance rover.

The aircraft was flown five times from Wright Brothers Field between April 19 and May 7, 2021, and was flown away from the field on its fifth flight on May 7.

Featured image shows Wilbur making a turn using wing-warping and the movable rudder, October 24, 1902. Photo: Attributed to Wilbur Wright (1867–1912) and/or Orville Wright (1871–1948). Most likely taken by Orville Wright. Scan from original glass plate negative (itself from Library of Congress), Public Domain.

Article sources: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; the Wright Brothers, The Other Side of the Coin, wingsovercansas.com; TIME magazine; “Aviation Lecture Series: Wrights vs. Curtis – The Patent Wars,” 2016, WACO Air Museum, retrieved December 4, 2017.

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