The Wright Model B Airplane and the Patent Wars

After the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903, they made the Model A Flyer and the 1909 Military Flyer, but did not produce any of their designs in quantity until 1910, when the Model B went into production–and was hampered by a patent conflict.

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Restored 1911 Wright Model B on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

In 1904, the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, had an absolute monopoly on manned powered flight. Their 1903 Wright Flyer was the first workable airplane in the world, their 1904 and 1905 Flyers had made flights up to half an hour long, with complete maneuvering capability–and they were the only two people who knew how to fly them. By any rational measure, the Wright brothers should have monopolized the entire aviation industry for the forseeable future. Instead, within ten years they were out of the aircraft business, the company they had founded would be floundering, and others would dominate the aviation industry.

When the Wright brothers made their historic flight in December 1903, they had done so in almost complete secrecy, making only a brief announcement to the press that was largely ignored (and flatly disbelieved by many). After their flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights retreated back to Ohio where, in a field near Dayton that was chosen specifically for its isolation, they began to modify their designs. The 1903 Flyer had made only short hops in a straight line; by 1905 the new Flyer was capable of carrying two people for distances up to 50 miles, and could maneuver easily in three dimensions.

By 1906, others had also developed workable airplanes, particularly in France. Albert Santos-Dumont was making demonstration flights in public, covering distances up to 700 feet. In 1908, the Voisin brothers and Louis Bleriot were building and flying their own aircraft, and Henri Farman made a circling demonstration flight of over one kilometer.

But once again, the Wright’s penchant for secrecy crippled them. The Wright’s latest Flyer, the 1907 Model A, was superior to all of these, but nobody knew it. Obsessed with preventing others from stealing their secrets, they made no demonstration flights. The brothers approached military officials in the US and Europe, but steadfastly refused to demonstrate their Flyer in action, or even show a good photograph of it– to do so, they wrote to a friend, “we would have to expose our machine more or less, and that might interfere with the sale of our secrets.” The business strategy of the Wright brothers was brutally simple–they wanted to cash in. As Wilbur wrote to a friend in 1907, “I want the business built up so as to get the greatest amount of money with as little work. Sell few machines at a big profit, so that we can close out.” The Wrights decided to simply keep their technology secret so nobody could steal it. When they approached potential military customers, the brothers expected them to accept their word that the aircraft did what they said it could do, and helpfully offered to refund the money if it didn’t. Not surprisingly, nobody took them seriously. Some Europeans even began to doubt that the Wright brothers had ever actually flown at all.

Only one customer decided to take the chance–the US Army. The War Department was interested in aviation technology, but it had been burned once before: in the years before Kitty Hawk, the War Department had sunk $50,000 into an “Aerodrome” designed by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, which had failed spectacularly to get into the air. In November 1908, the Army agreed to pay $25,000 for a Wright airplane, which became known as the 1909 Military Flyer. On the strength of that contract, a band of New York financiers (including Cornelius Vanderbilt) approached the Wright brothers to make a deal, and the Wright Company was formed with $1 million in financing. The two brothers split $100,000 and were given one-third of the company’s stock. They finally got the big payout that they wanted.

With their need for secrecy now gone, the Wrights went to Europe in 1908 and finally made some public demonstration flights. The Europeans were stunned by what they saw. While the early French aircraft flew unsteadily in mostly straight lines, the fast and maneuverable Wright Model A could literally fly circles around them. A French newspaper reporter breathlessly declared, “Not one of the former detractors of the Wrights dare question, today, the previous experiments of the men who were truly the first to fly.”

But this technological superiority did not last for long. Once again, the Wright brothers, thinking themselves secure in their economic payoff, made a bad decision, by stubbornly refusing to modify their designs. The flight control system used by the Wrights was known as “wing-warping”. It used three levers to move a series of cables that pulled the edges of the wings up or down to control the aircraft’s flight. It was a clumsy system that was difficult to learn, but the Wrights saw no need to improve it–a gap that was quickly filled by others. A whole slew of new aircraft designs appeared, most of them in France, which quickly caught up to and then surpassed the Wright design. Even today, most of the technical terms in aviation, such as “fuselage”, “canard”, and “aileron”, date from this period of European innovation.

One of these new designers was an American named Glenn Curtiss, who had gotten his start in aviation in the “Aerial Experiment Association” formed by inventor Alexander Graham Bell. By 1909, Curtiss was building and flying his own airplane designs. One important innovation pioneered by Curtiss was the “aileron”, a flight-control mechanism that changed the airplane’s flight path by manipulating a small flap at the trailing edge of the wing instead of the whole wing itself. It was a simpler and more elegant solution. When Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel in his homebuilt monoplane in July 1909, he was using Curtiss’s “aileron” design, and it was quickly adopted by virtually every aircraft builder.

Except for the Wrights. Wilbur and Orville had patented the flight-control system for their Flyers, and they considered that all of the European systems were simple variations of their own patented “wing-warping” mechanism. So rather than using improved technology to keep ahead of the European designers, the Wrights decided to use the legal system–in a series of court filings that became known as “The Patent Wars”, the brothers filed a series of infringement lawsuits against virtually every other airplane manufacturer in the world, seeking 20% of all their revenues.

Some airplane companies paid up. Others decided to fight–and the most prominent of these was Glenn Curtiss. In a series of court filings, Curtiss argued that his aileron system was fundamentally different than the Wright’s wing-warping, and filed for patents of his own. And anyway, Curtiss declared, the Wrights hadn’t produced the first workable airplane after all–Langley’s pre-Kitty Hawk design was capable of flying even though it had crashed during its tests (Curtiss even went so far as to borrow Langley’s Aerodrome, modify it a bit, and fly it).

At around the same time, the Wrights began to realize that they needed a new airplane design. The Model A was handmade, one at a time. What the Wright Company needed was a simpler model that could be produced on a much larger scale. The result was the Model B, first introduced in 1910. To improve their design, the Wrights removed the front elevator on the Model A and moved it to the end of the tail, behind the rudder, which made the plane more controllable. They also shortened the landing skids and added wheels to them, allowing the plane to land on virtually any flat surface. And finally, a new more powerful 40-horsepower four-cylinder engine removed the need for a catapult at launching–the plane could now take off on its own from any flat surface. The Model B could carry a pilot and one passenger at speeds up to 44 mph. The price tag was $5,000 per airplane.

From 1910 to 1914, about 100 Model B’s were built, reaching a rate of four planes per month. Most of these went to the US Army’s Signal Corps, which wanted them for aerial reconnaissance, but also did a series of experiments by fitting its Model B’s with Lewis machine guns, aerial bombs and bombsights, and radio telegraphs. The Navy also purchased a few Model B’s and some other designs, using them as seaplanes (after modifying the landing gear by adding floats). Later, in a series of experiments, the Navy also fitted a flat wooden ramp on top of the gun turrets on the cruiser USS Birmingham and flew a Curtiss airplane off from it, the first successful takeoff from a ship, and the direct ancestor of the modern aircraft carrier.

But the Wright Model B was already obsolete. Newer planes were far superior to it in performance and technology, and the Curtiss Aircraft Company was the largest manufacturer in the US. As President of the Wright Company, Wilbur Wright put all his energy into pursuing his patent lawsuits, which dragged on for years and continued after Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1914 and was replaced as President by Orville. Shortly before his death, Wilbur, realizing that his dogged pursuit of the patent suits at the expense of technological innovation had ultimately allowed others to surpass him, had written wistfully to a friend, “We have been compelled to spend our time on business matters during the past five years. When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad.” By the time the US Courts awarded the Wright Company victory in its patent suit against Curtiss in 1914, it no longer mattered. The Wright designs had stagnated technologically and were no longer relevant. In October 1915, Orville sold the Wright Company to a group of financiers for $1.5 million.

By 1917, the Wright Company and the Curtiss Company held nearly all the patents for aircraft manufacturing in the US, which produced a near-monopoly for the two. When the US entered World War One, it needed to make a lot of airplanes quickly, and found its efforts hampered by these patents. So at the insistence of the US government, aircraft manufacturers agreed to form a consortium, the “Manufacturers Aircraft Association”, in which they all agreed to pay a license fee in exchange for being able to freely use any of the patents. That arrangement lasted until the patents expired. In 1929, the Wright Company was bought by its arch-rival, Curtiss, and became Curtiss-Wright.

Today, only a handful of original Wright Model B airplanes still exist. One of these is held by the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Another is a restored 1911 Model B on display at the Franklin Institute museum in Philadelphia. This plane was originally purchased in 1912 by early aviator Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, and was abandoned when Bergdoll fled to Europe to avoid prosecution for evading the draft during World War One. The Model B was donated to the Franklin Institute in 1936 and remained in storage until 2001, when it was restored and placed on display.

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3 thoughts on “The Wright Model B Airplane and the Patent Wars”

  1. Very comprehensive piece on an interesting, instructive topic (although that sort of mistake has been repeated time and again, esp. in the tech industry).

    For me, the “lawsuit era” of aviation (borrowing a phrase from guitar history; in the 1970’s, Gibson sued Japanese manufacturers for building what were essentially better, lower-priced copies of Gibson’s iconic models, whose own quality of manufacture had suffered since the 60’s) is perfectly captured by the film “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”.

  2. This is my last week in Columbus–next week I’ll be in Dayton OH. Between the Wright Brothers museums and the USAF Museum, it’s steeped with aviation history. I’ll be in heaven. 😉

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