#241 The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies

Summary Notes


The episode delves into the early age of aviation, exploring the intense rivalry between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, as chronicled in Lawrence Goldstone's book "Birdmen." The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, are depicted as pioneers who solved the riddle of human flight but became embroiled in legal battles to control their inventions, a strategy that ultimately led to Wilbur's untimely death and Orville's withdrawal from the business. In contrast, Glenn Curtiss is portrayed as a master builder and relentless innovator, whose perseverance and continuous improvement of his products allowed him to surpass the Wrights, culminating in his retirement with significant achievements under his belt. The narrative also touches upon the contributions of other key figures like Octave Chanute, Lincoln Beachy, and John Moisant, underscoring the bravery, competition, and innovation that characterized the dawn of aviation.

Summary Notes

Early Flight and Mythical Figures

  • The pioneers of aviation are portrayed as mythical figures due to their daring and risk-taking behaviors.
  • The early aviators faced extreme conditions and dangers, often resulting in death.
  • Despite the risks, their passion for flight was likened to that of the first climber to summit Everest.

"Air travel is now so commonplace, has been so widely experienced, that those who risked their lives every time they took an airplane up, who flew an open aircraft, totally exposed to the elements and without seat restraints, who took their machines to great heights in freezing cold or in pelting rain, who died and watched their friends die, pushing up against the limits of performance, have become almost mythical figures."

This quote emphasizes the transformation of air travel from a perilous venture to a common mode of transportation, highlighting the contrast between modern comfort and the dangers faced by early aviators.

Birdman: The Book

  • "Birdman" details the tumultuous early years of aviation and the individuals involved.
  • The book focuses on the Wright brothers, Glenn Curtis, and their rivalry.
  • Speaker A was captivated by the book's vivid storytelling and meticulous research.

"This is the part that I read on the Kindle and immediately ordered the paperback version, which I hold in my hand right now."

Speaker A expresses their immediate interest in the book "Birdman" after reading a sample, leading them to purchase a physical copy.

Wilbur Wright's Death

  • Wilbur Wright passed away from typhoid fever, which his family attributed to the stress caused by legal battles with Glenn Curtis.
  • The Wright family viewed Wilbur's death as a consequence of the feud with Curtis, almost as if he had been murdered.
  • The narrative sets the stage for exploring the intense rivalry between Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtis.

"The Wright family did not believe Wilbur's death to have been the result of bad luck to them, Wilbur had been as good as murdered, hounded to his grave by a competitor so dishonest, so unscrupulous, so lacking in human feeling as to remain a family scourge as long as any of them remained alive."

The quote reflects the Wright family's belief that the stress from the rivalry with Glenn Curtis contributed to Wilbur's untimely death.

The Wright-Curtis Feud

  • The feud between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtis had a significant impact on American aviation.
  • The legal battles over patents distracted from innovation and ultimately led to a decline in the quality of the Wright brothers' products.
  • The American aviation industry lost its leading position due to these distractions.

"The bitter decade long, right. Curtis feud pitted against each other two of the nation's most brilliant innovators, and shaped the course of american aviation. The ferocity with which Wilbur Wright attacked and Glenn Curtis countered first launched America into preeminence in the skies, and then doomed it to mediocrity."

This quote outlines the paradox of how the rivalry initially spurred innovation but eventually led to a stagnation in American aviation progress.

Parallels Between Innovators

  • Both Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtis shared similar backgrounds and traits, including their serious, obsessive nature and their journey from bicycle racing to aviation.
  • Despite their similarities, Wilbur was a more intuitive scientist, while Curtis was a more practical craftsman and designer.
  • After Wilbur's death, Orville Wright could not sustain the same level of commitment to their aviation pursuits.

"As is often the case with those who despise each other, Curtis and Wilbur were sufficiently alike to have been brothers themselves."

The quote draws attention to the similarities between the two rivals, suggesting that their shared characteristics may have fueled their intense competition.

Early Aviation Personalities

  • The early years of aviation featured a variety of remarkable individuals, each with their own unique contributions and stories.
  • Many of these pioneers faced death, and the mortality rate among early aviators was high.
  • The author of "Birdman" draws comparisons between these aviation pioneers and historical explorers, suggesting a common personality type driven by the pursuit of discovery.

"Early flyers, birdmen, as they were called, were pioneers heading, heeding the same draw to riches or fame, our illumination of the unknown, that motivated those who had crossed unchartered oceans century before."

This quote connects the adventurous spirit of early aviators to that of historical explorers, emphasizing a shared drive toward the unknown.

Human Aspiration and Flight

  • The desire for human flight is an ancient aspiration that has fascinated civilizations throughout history.
  • Many great minds, including Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci, were drawn to the challenge of flight but could not solve it.
  • The pursuit of flight is described as a complex puzzle that took centuries to solve, piece by piece.

"Achieving flight might well be considered the oldest and most profound of all human aspirations."

This quote captures the depth and historical significance of the human desire to achieve flight, framing it as one of humanity's most enduring challenges.

Problem Solving Mindset

  • Every problem in the world has a potential solution, even if it may not be solved within our lifetime.
  • Adopting a defeatist attitude by accepting "this is just the way things are" is counterproductive.
  • Historical examples, like the Wright brothers' pursuit of flight despite widespread skepticism, illustrate the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity.
  • Studying history can provide perspective on overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges.

"Understand that every single problem that we have in the world right now can there is a solution."

This quote emphasizes the belief that all problems are solvable, encouraging an optimistic and proactive mindset.

The Role of History in Shaping Perspectives

  • Reading history can reveal how past generations viewed their own limitations and challenges.
  • Understanding historical achievements helps us realize the potential for progress in our own time.
  • Elon Musk's observation that today's commonplace technologies would have seemed like magic in the past serves as a reminder of human progress.

"And I think that's just one of the benefits of reading a ton of history."

Speaker A suggests that reading history is beneficial for understanding the progress over time and overcoming the notion of impossibility.

The Impact of Collaboration and Information Sharing

  • Octave Chinute played a crucial role in the development of aviation by organizing and sharing information among experimenters.
  • The sharing of data and results is essential for progress in any field.
  • Chinute's work facilitated the separation of effective methods from ineffective ones, advancing the science of aviation.

"So it says if the flying process was to move forward with any efficiency, experimenters would need some means to separate what seemed to work from what seemed to not."

This quote highlights the necessity of data sharing and collaboration for the advancement of aviation, emphasizing Chinute's contribution to the field.

The Power of Data and Knowledge as Catalysts

  • Chinute never designed a flying machine but was pivotal in aviation's gestation by acting as a catalyst for others.
  • His role underscores the importance of not only creators but also facilitators who can synthesize and disseminate information.
  • The sharing of knowledge and data can accelerate progress and lead to solutions for complex problems.

"The man who most appreciated the need was someone who, while not producing a single design that resulted in flight, was arguably the most important person to participate in its gestation."

This quote signifies the crucial role that Chinute played in aviation, not as an inventor but as an organizer and disseminator of knowledge.

The Dangers of Closed Mindsets and Scammers

  • The Wright brothers' skepticism of others protected them from being exploited by scammers like Augustus Moore Herring.
  • However, their closed mindset also prevented them from adopting new ideas and innovations, which eventually led to them losing their lead in aviation.
  • The case of Herring illustrates the presence of deceitful individuals in emerging industries, who can impede progress.

"The Wright brothers identify immediately. They just see, hey, none of the stuff the guy says is actually true."

This quote points out the Wright brothers' ability to discern the truth and protect themselves from fraudulent individuals like Herring.

The Importance of Comprehensive Research and Unique Solutions

  • Wilbur Wright's approach to solving the problem of flight involved extensive research and learning from the work of others.
  • By understanding what others had tried, Wilbur was able to come up with a unique solution—embracing instability in aircraft design, contrary to the common pursuit of stability.
  • This method of looking at what competitors are not doing can lead to significant breakthroughs in any field.

"Wilbur had his first great epiphany, a counterintuitive deduction. He came to understand that the best way to achieve stability in flight was to make an aircraft inherently unstable."

The quote captures Wilbur Wright's groundbreaking insight that led to a fundamental advancement in aviation, showing the value of thinking differently from competitors.

Early Aviation Industry Connections and Innovations

  • The early aviation industry was characterized by a network of interconnected individuals, each contributing to the field's progress.
  • Thomas Scott Baldwin's work with balloons and the invention of the parachute exemplify the innovative spirit of the time.
  • Glenn Curtis's background and mechanical ingenuity played a significant role in advancing aviation technology.

"Early in 1905, a brash, fearless teenager named Lincoln Beachy walked into his office, and within minutes, Baldwin knew he had struck gold."

This quote introduces Lincoln Beachy, another key figure in aviation history, highlighting the interconnectedness of innovators in the field.

The Consequences of Withholding Demonstrations

  • The Wright brothers initially made the mistake of not publicly demonstrating their flying machine, fearing intellectual property theft.
  • By requiring signed contracts before demonstrations, they hindered their own ability to showcase their technological lead.
  • The quote about not stopping before the finish line serves as a cautionary tale about complacency and the importance of continued effort and visibility.

"Increasingly concerned that their design would be stolen, they decided to do no more public flying."

This quote illustrates the Wright brothers' initial decision to keep their technology secret, which was later recognized as a strategic error.

Demonstration and Business Strategy

  • Demonstrating a product can lead to significant sales when presented to a large audience.
  • The Wright brothers learned to engage with the press to leverage public perception and boost sales.
  • Demonstrations can be powerful marketing tools, as shown by Claude Hopkins' principles.

"If you demo your product, and there's 200,000 of them, how many of your product are you going to sell? A ton."

This quote emphasizes the importance of product demonstrations in front of large audiences to increase sales. Demonstrations can significantly influence the success of a product.

Collaboration and Trust Issues

  • The Wright brothers were hesitant to collaborate with outsiders, including Glenn Curtis.
  • Trust issues can hinder potential beneficial partnerships and advancements in technology.

"The brothers were not about to deal with outsiders."

This quote highlights the Wright brothers' reluctance to collaborate with external parties, potentially limiting their opportunities for improvement and innovation.

Historical Meeting and Patent Disputes

  • The meeting between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtis was pivotal and controversial.
  • Interpretations of this meeting influenced the sides taken in a significant patent infringement case.

"What followed was the most important and controversial meeting in aviation history."

The quote refers to the meeting's historical significance and its role in shaping the narrative around the patent disputes between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtis.

Alexander Graham Bell's Influence

  • Bell assembled a team of young talents to tackle the problem of flight, recognizing that innovation often comes from the young.
  • Bell's recruitment of Glenn Curtis and Thomas Selfridge was strategic and influenced by their potential.

"Alexander Graham Bell decided to assemble his own team of talented young men to attack the flying problem."

This statement underscores Bell's proactive approach to innovation by gathering a team of young, talented individuals, including Glenn Curtis.

The Role of Youth and Innovation

  • Alexander Graham Bell's strategy reflects the belief that youth are often at the forefront of innovation.
  • Thomas Selfridge's recruitment illustrates the importance of recognizing and nurturing young talent.

"He realizes innovation usually comes from the young."

The quote highlights Bell's understanding of the importance of youth in driving innovation, which is why he sought to recruit younger team members like Glenn Curtis.

The First Aviation Fatality

  • Thomas Selfridge's historical significance lies in his unfortunate distinction as the first fatality in powered flight.
  • Selfridge's prior attempt to work with the Wright brothers went unanswered.

"Thomas Selfridge winds up being the first fatality ever."

This quote serves as a historical note regarding Thomas Selfridge's role in aviation history, marking a somber milestone in the development of flight.

The Interconnectedness of Innovators

  • The history of entrepreneurship shows a web of connections among inventors and leaders.
  • The relationships between figures like Bell, Roosevelt, and Curtis demonstrate the small world of innovation.

"It's just amazing how all these people were connected."

The quote reflects on the surprising interconnectedness of historical figures in the realm of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Complacency and Innovation

  • The Wright brothers' focus on business and patent protection led to a neglect of further innovation.
  • Complacency can result in falling behind in a rapidly advancing field.

"They're so focused on trying to build a business and protect their patents, they're not innovating."

This quote criticizes the Wright brothers for becoming too preoccupied with business concerns to continue innovating, which ultimately hindered their progress.

Underestimating the Competition

  • Wilbur Wright's stubbornness and self-belief led him to underestimate the progress of others in aviation.
  • The danger of underestimating competitors is a lesson applicable to various fields.

"Never underestimate your opponent because it's all downside and no upside."

The quote is a warning against the risks of underestimating competitors, as doing so offers no benefit and can lead to significant consequences.

Media Perception and Business

  • Public perception, shaped by media coverage, is crucial for business success.
  • The Wright brothers learned to cultivate positive media relationships to promote their achievements.

"After years of sustaining the media, Wilbur and Orville had finally learned that perception could not be ignored."

This quote highlights the lesson learned by the Wright brothers regarding the importance of media perception in the success of their business.

The Importance of Focus

  • Distractions can have dire consequences, even with positive intentions from others.
  • Maintaining focus is essential, especially in high-stakes situations.

"When a man is in that condition, he tends to trust the carefulness of others instead of doing everything and examining everything himself."

Wilbur Wright's observation emphasizes the importance of personal oversight and focus to avoid relying too much on others, which can lead to mistakes.

The Dangers of Bad Partnerships

  • Making deals with untrustworthy individuals can lead to significant losses.
  • The partnership between Glenn Curtis and Augustus Herring serves as a cautionary tale.

"You can't make a good deal with a bad person."

The quote, repeated for emphasis, serves as a stark reminder of the risks involved in forming partnerships with untrustworthy individuals.

Competitive Advancement

  • Innovation and competition can rapidly close gaps between industry leaders and newcomers.
  • The Wright brothers' initial advantage was quickly challenged by others, such as Louis Blériot.

"French designers had been experimenting furiously, and the gap was closing."

This quote indicates the rapid pace at which competitors can catch up, highlighting the importance of continual innovation and awareness of the competitive landscape.

Building Versus Architecting

  • Glenn Curtis may not have been the original architect of certain aviation technologies, but he became a formidable builder in the industry.
  • The eventual merger of the Wright and Curtis companies is an ironic twist in aviation history.

"Curtis might not be the architect, but he's the builder, right?"

The quote draws a distinction between the roles of inventing and improving upon inventions, recognizing Curtis's contributions to advancing aviation.

Capitalizing and Monopolizing

  • The Wright brothers' financial strategy aimed to secure a dominant position in the aviation market.
  • The desire to eliminate competition is a historical business strategy not unique to the Wright brothers.

"The primary goals of the new company were to permanently neuter competition."

This quote outlines the aggressive business strategy of the Wright company, which sought to establish a monopoly in the aviation industry.

Lessons from Henry Ford

  • Henry Ford's refusal to pay royalties to George Selden reflects a bold stance against perceived monopolies.
  • Ford's approach to the Selden patent case influenced the Wright brothers' patent strategy.

"One of those was Henry Ford, who at the time was a small operator."

The quote provides historical context regarding Henry Ford's early career and his defiance against what he saw as an unjust patent monopoly, setting an example that impacted the Wright brothers' legal strategies.

The Value of Honest Critique

  • Having trusted individuals who can offer frank and honest advice is valuable.
  • Octave Chanute's critique of Wilbur Wright's focus on wealth over progress is an example of such honesty.

"I am afraid, my friend, that your usually sound judgment has been warped by your desire for great wealth."

This quote from Octave Chanute to Wilbur Wright illustrates the importance of having someone who can offer a reality check and potentially steer one away from misguided decisions.

The Power of Books

  • Books serve as a gateway to discovering new and interesting people and ideas.
  • Historical biographies provide insights into the lives and strategies of past innovators.

"Books are the original links, and they're constantly introducing us to new, interesting people."

The quote captures the essence of how books can connect readers to a wealth of knowledge and introduce them to influential figures from history.

John "Bet-a-Million" Gates

  • John Gates earned his nickname due to his high-stakes gambling habits.
  • He made his fortune in several industries, including barbed wire sales, land speculation, and oil.
  • Gates founded Texaco in 1902 after striking oil in Texas.
  • He was an early investor in both United States Steel and the Wright Company.
  • Gates' life is an example of extraordinary success in diverse ventures within a single lifetime.

Gates made a fortune selling barbed wire in the dying days of the open range parlayed that into a bigger fortune in land speculation. Then in 1902, struck oil in Texas and founded the company that would become Texaco.

This quote encapsulates Gates' successful ventures from barbed wire to founding Texaco, highlighting his diverse business acumen.

John Moissant and the Moissant Family

  • John Moissant was an international celebrity known for his escapades and business ventures.
  • The Moissant family amassed a fortune in lumber, real estate, and mining after moving from Illinois to California.
  • Alfred Moissant, John's brother, owned a vast sugar plantation in El Salvador.
  • John Moissant's adventurous spirit led him to become a target of multiple countries, including the U.S., due to his political involvements in Central America.
  • After being forced to abandon Central American politics, John Moissant turned his focus to aviation.

John M. Was something of an international celebrity. He had narrowly evaded capture and possible execution after a third failed attempt to lead an invasion of El Salvador.

This quote describes John Moissant's adventurous and risky life, which included failed political invasions and narrow escapes.

John Moissant's Aviation Career

  • John Moissant was driven by a desire for adventure, wealth, and recognition.
  • He sought to become the world's greatest exhibition flyer and aircraft designer.
  • Moissant was innovative in his use of aluminum in airplane construction.
  • He gained fame in Europe by showing up uninvited to an air race and flying across Paris.
  • John Moissant's flying career was marked by risk-taking and a refusal to accept no for an answer.

John might have been headstrong and narcissistic, but he was far from stupid. His plan was to become the world's greatest exhibition flyer in an aircraft of his own creation.

This quote highlights Moissant's ambition and intelligence in pursuing a dual role as an aircraft designer and exhibition flyer.

The Dangers of Early Aviation

  • Early aviation was fraught with dangers, including the lack of safety measures like seatbelts.
  • Many pilots, including John Moissant, died in accidents where they were ejected from their planes.
  • The narrative emphasizes the oversight in early aircraft design regarding pilot safety.

Nobody thought that you should have a seatbelt or an harness.

This quote points out the lack of basic safety considerations in early aviation, which led to numerous fatalities.

The Wright-Curtiss Conflict

  • Glenn Curtiss faced legal battles with both the Wright brothers and a deceitful partner.
  • Wilbur Wright pursued aggressive legal action to protect his patents, which led to conflicts with wealthy and influential adversaries.
  • The McCormick family, linked to the Rockefellers, challenged the Wright brothers with significant financial and media power.

Wilbur and Curtis continue to battle each other. The puncher stalking the boxer, Wilbur attempting to land a crushing body blow to a weakened opponent.

This metaphorical quote describes the intense legal struggle between Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss, likening it to a boxing match.

The Consequences of Stubbornness

  • Wilbur Wright's stubborn defense of his patents led to personal and professional distress.
  • Wilbur's focus on litigation consumed his time and health, leading to his regret and eventual death at a young age.
  • The narrative highlights the importance of balancing one's passion for work with the potential negative impact on life and health.

Wilbur never seemed to grasp that his crusade to destroy his nemesis could destroy him as well.

This quote reflects on Wilbur Wright's inability to see the self-destructive path of his legal battles, ultimately contributing to his downfall.

Glenn Curtiss' Endurance and Success

  • Glenn Curtiss persevered through legal and business challenges, outlasting the Wright brothers.
  • Curtiss' innovations and business acumen led to significant contributions to aviation and a substantial fortune.
  • The story of Curtiss versus the Wright brothers illustrates the value of resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity.

By endurance, we conquer.

The Shackleton family motto, quoted here, encapsulates Glenn Curtiss' approach to overcoming obstacles and achieving success in aviation.

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