The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy
An Idea Whose Time Had Come

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s Walcott was slowly rebuilding Langley’s reputation, the Wright brothers’ was being eroded. They had been international celebrities and national heroes in 1909. But this changed when they filed a law suit for patent infringement and began to ask royalties not just from aircraft manufacturers, but also producers of aviation events and even individual exhibition pilots. Pilots and plane-makers that had once admired the Wrights now carefully followed the patent suits and rooted against the brothers. Editorials appeared that condemned the Wrights for their apparent greed and attempts to monopolize this fragile new industry. To the general public, the Wrights were made to look less like heroes and more like aspiring robber barons. 

This was the situation in January of 1914 when a panel of three justices on the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit upheld Judge Hazel’s decision that the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company to have infringed on Patent No. 821,393 – the Wright brothers’ 1906 patent on an aircraft control system. They also upheld his judgment that the patent was entitled to “liberal interpretation” as it was the grandfather or “pioneer” patent of the aviation industry. It was an electrifying decision for the entire aviation community; the decision made it possible for Orville Wright (Wilbur was now deceased) to create a patent monopoly on the airplane, the same as Alexander Graham Bell had done with the telephone.

Pioneer Patents
The Wright Company’s board of directors met in New York immediately after the decision was announced and proposed to do just that by hiring William F. McComb – a confidant of the President Woodrow Wilson with deep Democratic connections – to lobby the administration to buy Wright aircraft. Orville balked. He did not want his company or the aviation industry tied to a particular political party. He did not want to manage a colossal manufacturing operation, nor did he want to build one by bankrupting dozens of other companies. He began to plot a way to shed himself of his corporate obligations and the burden of the Wright patent. In the meantime, he let it be known through the New York Times he was willing to work with any aircraft manufacturer who was willing to pay 20% of the purchase price to license their aircraft. This was the same percentage that the Wright Company had charged Burgess and others who had licensed their patents and designs – in short, it was business as usual.

Usual or not, 20% was a financial impossibility for most U.S. airplane manufacturers prior to World War I; none of them were that prosperous. Had it been enforced it would have put most of them out of business, creating a monopoly through attrition. The news seemed even worse for Curtiss, if that were possible. Other airplane companies might be able to negotiate royalties and payments, but there was too much bad blood between Orville Wright and Glenn Curtiss for Curtiss to expect any mercy. Wilbur had run himself ragged defending the Wright patent in court, then contracted typhoid fever while on one of his many trips. His worn down physical condition almost certainly made him more susceptible and more likely to succumb to the disease, and the Wright family held Curtiss indirectly responsible for Wilbur's death.

That same month, Lincoln Beachey, a well-known aviator and a stockholder in the Curtiss company, wrote to the Smithsonian and asked for the loan of the remains of Aerodrome A. His proposal was to restore the airframe, then mount a modern motor and propellers and attempt to fly the old aircraft. It was not a new idea; Bell, Chanute, and members of the U.S. Army had all suggested something similar as early as 1906 – a good number of people in Washington believed that the Aerodrome was not a failure; it simply had been improperly launched. Walcott had actually written to Curtiss about making another launch attempt prior to Beachey’s inquiry; it seemed a good initial project for the Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory. Walcott turned Beachey down, but the letter started a ball rolling.

Walcott could not help but notice that news and editorials concerning the “patent wars” had damaged Orville Wright’s reputation. The country had just spent the better part of a decade trust-busting with President Theodore Roosevelt to level the economic playing field for smaller companies. The word “monopoly” had a stink about it, even if it was supported by the courts. If the Aerodrome flew, it would show that manned aircraft could have flown before the Wrights; their patent had no right to pioneer status, and the suit would go back to the courts. Not only would Langley be rehabilitated; the Smithsonian would be seen as having saved the aircraft industry. It might be the big win needed to procure some serious funding for the Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory

Not long afterwards, Walcott invited Curtiss to bring one of his new flying boats to Washington for Langley Day – 6 May 1914. Curtiss, who was aware of Beachey’s proposal, replied that he would rather restore and fly the Aerodrome. There was a series of phone calls between Curtiss, Bell, and Walcott as the project began to take shape. There would be two separate missions, the first to show that the 1903 Aerodrome was airworthy and the second to investigate the properties of the tandem-wing configuration. On March 25, Walcott told Bell that Curtiss could reproduce the Aerodrome for $2000. It was a bargain-basement estimate; it's almost certain that Curtiss proposed such a low cost because he stood to gain so much from the project. Then Bell and Walcott discussed whether it was proper for the Smithsonian to fund the experiment, given its possible commercial impact. To avoid that hornet’s nest, Walcott volunteered $1000 of his own money and Bell offered to chip in the rest. 

On March 30, Walcott, Bell, and Curtiss met at Bell’s home in Washington. Walcott wanted the Aerodrome replica ready to fly by Langley Day – May 6, 1914. Curtiss could not guarantee that he could get it done that quickly, and Walcott suggested it might be faster to rebuild the original Aerodrome. After all, the central frame was ready to go; it had been repaired by Charles Manly, Langley’s assistant, before it was stored. Bell objected, arguing that the 1903 Aerodrome A was a valuable historic artifact. But technically it was not; the Aerodrome was still the property of the U.S. Army and some members of that Army had indicated that they would like to see the machine fully tested. Walcott prevailed, expedience was paramount, and on April 2 the Smithsonian shipped the original Aerodrome airframe to Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in Hammondsport, New York. This was followed by the original engine several days later. All parties agreed that this project should proceed in confidence, with no announcement. The Smithsonian Board of Regents was never consulted or asked to approve these actions, although Bell was a member of this board.

Although the Wright patent was simply titled "Flying Machine," it was specifically concerned with aircraft controls – the control surfaces and the manner in which these surfaces were moved. These made it possible to navigate the airplane, which in turn made it a practical form of transportation.

Lincoln Beachey in the cockpit of his Curtiss-built "Beachey Special Looper."

Beachey racing Barney Oldfield, a popular race car driver, at an exhibition. The reason that Walcott turned Beachey down may have been that Beachey was too much of a showman and Walcott wanted the Aerodrome flights to have the appearance of a serious scientific investigation.

The Aerodrome airframe, top view

The Aerodrome airframe from the side. This was the portion of the aircraft that Many restored in 1904 before the machine was put in storage.

Glenn Curtiss (left) with Alexander Graham Bell (right) and other members of the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), standing beside the White Wing, one of several airplanes the group built in 1907, 1908, and 1909. Bell had introduced Curtiss to aeronautical engineering and in many ways considered Curtiss to be a protégé.

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