The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss

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The Rheims meeting in August, 1909, was the first air spectacular. Over the course of a week some five hundred thousand people, including royalty of various stripes, watched in astonishment as airplanes flew faster, higher, and farther than ever before. All the leading aviators were there except the Wrights, and they were represented by five Flyers built under license in France. Louis Blériot, fresh from his celebrated flight across the English Channel, was a heavy favorite for the speed events. Lacking even a spare engine, Curtiss husbanded his resources. Except for two shorter races, which he split with Blériot, he pointed for the main event—the twenty-kilometer speed trial for the Gordon Bennett Trophy donated by newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

Race day, August 28, dawned clear and windless, and Curtiss decided to make his trial while conditions held. He took off, climbed to five hundred feet, and dove hard for the first pylon. At full throttle he ranged twice around the ten-kilometer course, shaving the pylons so closely that he left the spectators gasping. His time was announced as 15 minutes, 50 seconds, or 46.5 miles an hour. While the other contestants took turns at the mark Blériot tuned and retuned his monoplane’s big engine.

Curtiss was still in first place when the Frenchman made his bid in late afternoon. It was a fast flight all the way, and although some noted how he slipped into a wide turn on lap two, Curtiss thought he was beaten. But suddenly the Stars and Stripes was fluttering from the flagstaff and the band was playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the crowd was in an uproar. Blériot had fallen short by six seconds. The New York Herald was quick to point out that Glenn Curtiss was now “the fastest man of the earth and skies.”

His quiet elation was tempered by stunning news recently arrived from the United States. In a New York federal court the Wright brothers had filed suit against the Herring-Curtiss Company and Curtiss personally, seeking an injunction to bar all sales and exhibitions on the grounds of patent infringement.

The Wright-Curtiss patent fight, a convoluted affair of charges and countercharges, injunctions and appeals, would drag on for eight years, with profound effects on the participants themselves and on aviation in general. The crux of the issue was the Wrights’ control system. The Curtiss ailerons were clearly different from the Wrights’ wing warping, and far more practical. Yet having filed suit, the Wrights stuck to warping long after progress passed them by. Moreover, the basic principle of changing the angle of wing surfaces relative to the airflow to maintain lateral stability could be considered the same. And principle was very much involved; the Wrights contended that as sole inventors of the airplane they deserved the broadest possible interpretation for their “pioneer patent.” In January, 1910, a federal judge granted them a temporary injunction. Six months later Curtiss won a stay on appeal, and the whole case began another long, slow progress through the courts.

Attempts made to settle the expensive legal war out of court got nowhere. Wilbur and Orville Wright were prideful men, stiff-backed in their rectitude. They could claim one of the great inventions of all time, yet their reward had been public scorn and, they said, surreptitious efforts by “the Curtiss crowd” to “pick their brains.” They were ironbound in their determination for recognition and financial benefit. Glenn Curtiss gave nothing away when it came to prideful stubbornness. He was sure his aileron control was both different and superior; but even more important, he was fighting for his business life. The Wrights demanded a license fee of a thousand dollars a machine, and with Curtiss planes of the period carrying a five-thousanddollar price tag, that came to a ruinous 20 per cent royalty. The gulf between the contestants would widen after 1912, when Wilbur Wright died. Orville was convinced that the strains of the court battle had weakened his brother’s health, leaving him prey to the typhoid fever that killed him.

 

Another issue strongly coloring the Wright-Curtiss feud was the matter of monopoly. This was an era when the words monopoly and trust rang sinister to many ears. The oil trust, the steel trust, the sugar trust, the money trust were only the best known; many others flourished beyond the light of publicity. Late in 1909, three months after filing suit, the Wrights formed a million-dollar corporation backed by Wall Street titans, and fears of monopoly were suddenly very real. A Chicago paper raised the specter of an air trust “which will practically control the aviation of the world.” The Wrights’ actions, remarks Marvin McFarland, the editor of their papers, “turned the hand of almost every man in aviation against them.”