Ramblings & ephemera

How patents ruined the Wright brothers

From Robert X. Cringely’s “Patently Absurd: Why Simply Making Spam Illegal Won’t Work“:

Nobody can deny that the Wright brothers were pioneers. Their use of a wind tunnel helped define the science of aerodynamics and had influence far beyond their time. But their secrecy and litigious nature held back the progress of flying, and eventually lost them their technical leadership. The Wrights flew in 1903. They made a small public announcement 100 years ago, then went silent until 1908 as they worked to solidify their patent position. While they continued to fly from pastures around Dayton, Ohio, the brothers generally did so in secret, waiting for patents to be issued.

When the Wrights finally appeared in public again five years later, first in Washington, DC, and later in France, the performance of their aircraft still astounded the world. But that was it. Once the brothers filed a patent infringement suit against rival Glenn Curtiss, their attention was totally turned to litigation and their aeronautical progress stopped. Curtiss and Wright eventually merged and built aircraft into the 1940s, but the creative energy by that time was all from Curtiss. By then, Wilbur had died and Orville was best known as the man who signed every pilot license. Though their patent was upheld, they didn’t in any sense control the industry they had invented.

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