Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies by Lawrence Goldstone

I have been naive. I have always thought that scientists and inventors were mostly driven by wonder and curiosity. Men and women, I thought, wanted to discover how things work just because they longed to know. I thought most invention was a test of intellect and creativity. I understood that some research was driven by necessity, such as the need to cure diseases or protect the environment, but even then, part of the results should be joy for work well done. What I did not count on was anyone like Wilbur Wright. Intent on exploiting his patents for profit even before he and his brother successfully flew, he seemed to find little joy in putting pilots in the air.

Readers of Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies by Lawrence Goldstone will get their fill of Wilbur Wright. He truly loved his family, including the brother he sometimes bullied, but his opinion of the rest of humanity seems to have been low. He felt that all modern people owed the Wright brothers a debt for the discovery of powered flight. He expected that the brothers' broadly written patents gave them a well-earned monopoly of the industry. He also expected the U.S. and foreign governments to contract through the Wright firm for all of their aircraft development. When other inventors and manufacturers opposed paying royalties and pilots fought against paying license fees for the right to fly, he filed law suits.

Engine builder and pilot Glenn Curtis was among the many inventors who felt the Wright Brothers had learned as much from their experimental designs as they learned from the brothers. An entire society of flying men and women had been trying to fly for years before the Wright brothers even started. They took offense at the Wright brothers' notion that air flight belonged to them alone. Mostly ignoring the Wright brothers and their demands, they continued to fly, risking their lives to test and demonstrate aircraft. In a four year period, 142 of these barnstorming pilots died in accidents.

Birdmen is a great in-depth story that shows a dark side to American business history. Look for it at your public library.

Goldstone, Lawrence. Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies. Ballantine Books, 2014. 448p. ISBN 9780345538031.

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