The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy
Patents and Politics

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ahm's and Walcott's distortion of the 1914 test-flights and the unwarranted conclusion that the Langely Aerodrome A was airworthy in its original 1903 configuration was repeated in hundreds of newspapers and magazines worldwide. The Wrights’ English patent attorney, Griffith Brewer, visited the Curtiss camp on Lake Keuka in mid-June, took some photos to document the changes that had been made to the Aerodrome, and fired off a letter to the New York Times on 22 June 1914 that exposed the deception. In his letter, Brewer asked some embarrassing questions:

  • "Why has Langley's most interesting machine been taken out of the Smithsonian and altered from its original historic state to try to make it fly?
  • "Why if such a demonstration were decided upon, was not some impartial, unprejudiced person chosen to make the test instead of the person who has been found guilty of infringement of the Wright Patent?
  • "Why, if the Langley flying machine was a practical flying machine, did not those in charge of the machine try to fly it without alteration? ...This should have been easy if the machine invented by Professor Langley was really capable of flight."

This, in turn, it generated a controversy that raged for nearly thirty years in the popular press. Instead of vindicating Langley, it eventually wedded his name to a failure that overshadowed his many successes and diminished the scientific institution he had once led.

The media was quick to understand why Curtiss had staged this event.  In 1909, the Wright brothers filed a legal suit against Curtiss and his company for infringement of their patent. The Wright brothers and Curtiss had been duking it out in the courts ever since, with injunctions, depositions, expert testimonies, and years of legal delays. In 1913, Judge John R. Hazel of the United States District Court for the Western District of New York had decided for the Wrights and in early 1914 Curtiss lost his last possible appeal. According to the media, he was on the ropes; the continued existence of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in doubt unless he could come up with a good reason to reopen the case. On 5 June 1914, Flight magazine had observed, “This test has a purpose in view besides vindicating Langley. It is held by this proof of the capability of the Langley machine to fly, certain patent claims can be successfully overcome.”

This was just what Curtiss' lead attorney W. Benton Crisp was planning. The Wright patent described an aircraft control system. If a successful example of airplane controls that predated the Wrights – the legal term was "prior art" – could be found, then it could be argued that the Wrights had no right to the broad claims they were making for their patent. In fact, Curtiss and Crisp did not intend to rely on only one example. In addition to the Langley Aerodrome, Curtiss would also eventually build a replica of an airplane designed in 1883 by Alexandre Goupil. It had "elevons," precursors to the ailerons that Curtiss used for roll control.

The motives of the Smithsonian Institution were less clear. The manned Aerodrome A was a technological dead end; the few successful unmanned aerodromes that Langley had flown in 1896 and afterwards did not influence the development of aeronautics except to inspire a few early aviators, among them the Wright brothers. Why had Secretary Walcott and the Smithsonian risked their reputations by revisiting a failed experiment just to “vindicate” a dead colleague?

The question was its own answer. Reputation was the coin of the realm in Washington DC, then as it is now. The stated purpose of the Smithsonian may have been to advance and share scientific knowledge, but it existed in a city that ran on politics. Secretary Walcott may have been an accomplished paleontologist, but he was also a highly effective politician. And he was effective because he had carefully groomed his reputation. He had just one outstanding blemish that limited his potency in his current position – the failure of the Langley Aerodrome.

Griffith Brewer (left) being taught to fly by instructor Max Rinehart (right) at the Wright Flying School in 1913. Brewer was also an  experienced balloonist.

One of Brewer's photos from June 1914 showing the Curtiss sheds on the shore of Lake Keuka. The Aerodrome is on the right, under a tarp.

Showing the double spars that stiffened the wings. Curtiss had added a short spar beneath each wing.

Curtiss controls in the Aerodrome. The post moved the tail to control pitch; the shoulder yoke and then the wheel moved the mid-ships rudder to control yaw. Later the rudder was tied off and the tail made to move both up and down and side to side.

The Curtiss Duck -- an inexact copy of an aircraft designed in 1883 by Alexandre Goupil -- in flight at the Curtiss facility near Newport News in January 1917.

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