The Airplane Business

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istory is not especially kind to the Wright brothers where the airplane business is concerned. It certainly seems they had little to crow about. Their aircraft company did not prosper; it struggled along for six hard years until it was finally sold. During that time, it lost it's technological lead and Wright airplanes became hopelessly obsolete. The brothers alienated much of the aviation community with their patent law suits. Then, when they won those suits, Orville alienated the investors in the Wright Company by refusing to take full advantage of their legal position. Consequently, many historians judge Wilbur and Orville Wright to be as inept in business as they were brilliant in engineering.

But this is simply not true. It's akin to "Monday-morning quarterbacking" – it's very easy to pontificate about what action might have saved the day once the game is played out. But things look very different when you're on the playing field, the clock is running, and you have no idea what fate is going to throw at you next.

Our understanding of their business problems is colored by a century of aviation history. Today the aerospace industry is a large sector of the world economy and much of our culture revolves around flight. We cannot imagine functioning without airplanes. We forget that it wasn't that way when the Wright brothers started manufacturing and selling flying machines. In 1909, there was no market for airplanes and most of the world could do very nicely without those noisy, flimsy, dangerous contraptions, thank you very much.

No one was more surprised to find this out than the Wright brothers. But when the world did not beat a path to their door, they did what they had always done -- they put their shoulder to the work at hand. They had invented the airplane; now it was time to help invent the airplane business.

Timeline:

  • Fall 1909 - The Wright brothers are approached by a representative of several New York financiers wanting to invest in aviation, including J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Within a few weeks they reach an agreement and form the Wright Company with capitalization of $1 million. Wilbur and Orville receive $100,000 and a third of the shares of stock. Suddenly, they are in the airplane manufacturing business.
  • Fall 1909 - The Wright brothers train their first crop of student pilots. In accordance with their Army contract, Wilbur trains the first military pilots at College Park, Maryland - Lieutenants Frank Lahm, Frederick Humphreys, and Benjamin Foulois.
  • Throughout 1910 - The Wrights win an injunction against the Herring-Curtiss Company, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and exhibition of airplanes while the patent suit is pending. Curtiss files an appeal and keeps flying. Meanwhile, the Wrights file suits against other American manufacturers, importers of airplanes, and foreign pilots doing exhibition flights in America. In France and Germany, the Wright-affiliated companies cross legal swords with European airplane manufacturers that are using Wright technology. The Patent Wars are joined on all fronts, with the Wrights against much of the world’s aviation community. The suits make them many enemies and monopolize their time.
  • Spring and Summer 1910 - Aware that there is more money to be made in exhibition flying than selling airplanes, the Wright Company decides to field and exhibition team, the "Wright Fliers." They hire Roy Knabenshue to lead it. They also put him in charge of the fledgling Wright Flying School, although Orville trains the first group of pilots, including Walter Brookins, Arch Hoxsey, A.L. Welsh, Frank Coffyn, Ralph Johnstone, and Phil Parmalee - all of whom went on to become well-known pioneer aviators. Because the weather is too cold to fly in Ohio, Orville opens a school in Montgomery, Alabama and began training on March 28. On June 13 through 18, the Wright Fliers make their first appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
  • Summer 1910 - The first order of business for the manufacturing side of the Wright Company was to develop a new model that incorporated the latest aeronautical developments. Airplanes had changed quite a bit since the Wright first designed the Model A in 1907. To improve stability and handling, the Wrights did away with their distinctive front canard and mounted a flexible elevator behind the rudder. With a new 40-horsepower 4-cyclinder engine, Wright airplanes could dispense with the cumbersome launching derrick, so they put wheels on the landing skids. Orville first flew the improved "Model B" in July. This was to be the Wright’s most popular airplane.
  • October 1910 - The Wrights brought their new Model B to the first international air show to be held in the United States, at Belmont, New York. They also unveiled a single-seat, clipped-wing version they called the Model R - the "R" was for "racer". With a powerful V-8 engine, it could fly in excess of 70 miles per hour and with it, the Wrights hoped to snatch the Gordon Bennett trophy for speed away from Curtiss . It wasn’t to be. Walter Brookins crashed the Model R in a trial flight, and the trophy went to English pilot Claude Graham-White. This marked the end of the Wright’s perceived technological superiority in airplane design.
  • Summer 1910 to Summer 1911 - The Army and Navy take the first steps to turn the airplane into a weapon. In August, Lieutenant Jacob Fickel fires a rifle from a Curtiss, proving that the recoil from the rifle will not effect the aircraft in flight. Later that same month, James McCurdy uses a wireless transmitter in an aircraft. In November, Eugene Ely takes off from a makeshift platform built aboard the U.S.S. Birmingham, marking the beginning of the aircraft carrier. In January 1911, Lieutenant M. S. Crissy drops live bombs from a Wright biplane. Later that same year, a Nieuport becomes the first airplane equipped with a machine gun. Captain Carlo Piazza flies a Bleriot on a scouting mission for the Italian Army who is fighting the Turks near Tripoli. It is the first use of an aircraft in a war.
  • Fall 1911 - Although the armies of the world were re-inventing the airplane as a weapon, the Wrights still believed in its use for sport. While Wilbur was in Europe, checking the French and German factories, Orville made a new glider, his first in almost a decade, and incorporated all the aerodynamic knowledge they had gleaned in that time. With his brother Lorin and English pilot Alec Ogilvie, they traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to test a glider and an autopilot system they had been working on since 1906. Once in Kitty Hawk, Orville decided not to try the automatic pilot because of all the reporters snooping around, but he did fly the glider, making the world’s first true soaring flights. On October 24, he remained airborne in the glider for 9 minutes and 45 seconds, a soaring record that stood for ten years.
  • Fall and Winter 1911 - While Orville was setting a soaring record at Kitty Hawk, a student of his was setting an endurance record of a different sort. Taking off from Sheepshead Bay on September 17, Cal Rodgers flew his Wright Model EX, dubbed the Vin Fiz, westward in a race to be the first to cross the continent in an airplane. If he arrived at the Pacific Coast in less than 30 days, he would win a $50,000 purse the publisher William Randolph Hearst put up. Rodgers did not capture the purse, but his did make it to Long Beach, California 84 days later after five major crashes and countless minor mishaps. Still he was the first person to cross America - or any continent - in an airplane.
  • Winter 1911 to Spring 1912 - The Wright Company in particular and American airplane companies in general continue to lose their technological edge to the Europeans. This is due in part to the U.S. Government’s failure to support the fledgling airplane industry. While the governments of England, France, and Germany are buying hundreds of airplanes for their armed forces and supporting aviation research, the United States is spending roughly the same amount of money as Bulgaria. At the Wright Company, this crisis is compounded by the fact that the research and development team - Wilbur and Orville - is preoccupied with business matters. Wilbur runs himself ragged over the patent suits and, in his weakened condition, contracts typhoid. He dies on May 30, 1912.
  • Summer 1912 to Spring 1913 - Orville and Katharine take up the gauntlet for Wilbur, pursuing the patent fights in Germany, France, and the United States. The decisions handed down in Europe are disappointing. In Germany, the courts rule that although the Wrights did indeed invent the basic system of aerodynamic control used in all practical aircraft, they were entitled to only partial protection. Supposedly, much of their work had been explained in Wilbur’s speeches and writings before the German patent was issued, and this "prior disclosure" negated their claim. In France, the ruling is more favorable for the Wrights, but the defendants filed a motion to have a panel of experts study "prior art" – inventors who may have experimented with parts of the Wright control system before they put it all together. The Wrights lawyers made it clear that the defendants would be able to stall like this until the French patents ran out. Back in Dayton, the Wright family faces a disaster of another sort. The city suffers a devastating flood, and many of the contents of the Wright’s home and bicycle shop are destroyed. Fortunately, the Wrights early aeronautical photographs and the stored parts of the 1903 Flyer survive with only minor damage.
  • Spring 1913 to Winter 1914 – Patent suits and floods weren’t the Wright Company’s only problems. A rash of fatal accidents plagued the new Wright Model C, a more powerful variant of the popular Model B, and sales plummeted. Orville was convinced the problem lay in the inexperience of the pilots and perfected an "automatic stabilizer" – the first primitive autopilot – to prevent inadvertent stalls and dives. After a convincing demonstration before the Aero Club of America, Orville was awarded the Collier Trophy for the invention. It was a triumph for his deceased brother Wilbur, too. The two of them had worked on the stabilizer off and on as early as 1905. The fall of 1913 brought the conclusion of two more long term projects. First, the Wright Company successfully tested a flying boat, the Wright Model G. Wilbur and Orville had experimented with water launches and landings since 1907 and had flown both the Model B and Model C with pontoons. But Curtiss beat the Wright Company off the water with the first true flying boat in 1912 and captured the lion’s share of the United States Navy’s business. To catch up, Orville hired a promising young engineer, Grover Loening, to design and build a competitive aeroboat. Second, the Wrights moved from their long-time home at 7 Hawthorne Street to a mansion they had built in nearby Oakwood, Ohio, Hawthorne Hill. The turn of the year brought more good news. On January 13, 1914 the United States Court of Appeals upheld the Wright brothers 1906 patent and judged it to be the "grandfather" patent of the airplane.
  • Throughout 1914 and 1915 – The investors in the Wright Company push Orville to establish a "patent monopoly" on the airplane, as Alexander Graham Bell did with the telephone. But Orville balks. Instead of taking the legal steps to shut other aircraft manufacturers down, he simply asks them to pay royalties - all except Curtiss. He will make no deals with Curtiss. At the same time, he begins to buy up the outstanding shares of the Wright Company. Curtiss, meanwhile, sees the handwriting on the wall and tries another legal maneuver. He procures the wreckage of Langely’s 1903 Great Aerodrome from the Smithsonian Institution and rebuilds it, making many improvements. Then he makes a few brief hops, hoping to prove to the courts that while the Wrights were the first to fly, they were not the first that could have flown. The Smithsonian embraces this view and thereafter displays the Aerodrome with a placard that it was the first airplane "capable of flight." Orville is incensed, and this begins a life-long feud with the Smithsonian.
  • Fall 1915 - Orville sells the Wright Company and his patents to a group of New York investors (several of whom were the original investors in the company) for $250,000. He is officially out of the airplane business and rich enough to pursue his own ambitions.

Note: You may also want to consult the Wright Timeline.
 


The incorporation papers of the Wright Company.

A Wright Model B taking shape in the Assembly Room of the Wright Company.


Launching a Wright Model A at the US Army Flying School in College Park, Maryland.


The Wright Flying School in Birmingham, Alabama. Later this became the site of Maxwell Air Force Base.


Testing a Wright Model A with a horizontal elevator both fore and aft.


Orville Wright in the Model R racer in 1910.

Eugene Ely takes off from the USS Birmingham on 14 November 1910.


U.S. Army pilots Kirkland and Chandler prepare to fire a Lewis machine gun from a Wright Model B on 7 June 1912.


Orville Wright sets the first soaring record in an experimental glider at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on 24 October 1911.


The Vin Fiz, with Cal Rodgers at the controls, leaves Sheepshead Bay, New York on the first flight to cross a continent.


The Wright home at 7 Hawthorne Street in Dayton, Ohio under water during the Great Flood of 1913.


The wreck of a Wright Model C at the U.S. Army flying school in College Park, Maryland.


Elwood "Gink" Doherty, a pilot on Curtiss' staff, flies the much-modified 1903
Great Aerodrome over Lake Keuka near Hammondsport. New York in 1914.


The Wright Model L was the last airplane built by the Wright Company.

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The Wright Story/The Airplane Business

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers

 

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