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Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 6, 2014
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Wilbur and Orville Wright expected much more than fame after they flew across the sands at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Having successfully flown and filed a broadly worded patent for a wing and rudder design, they expected royalties to be paid to them for every aircraft built by rivals. Believing they owned the concept of flight, they also demanded licensing fees for every barnstorming flight and a cut from the profits of every public air show. Glenn Curtiss and other proud air pioneers scoffed at the brothers’ claim, arguing they had all had a hand in achieving flight. In Birdmen, historian and novelist Goldstone recounts years of legal wrangling that slowed Americans using aircraft for commerce, transportation, and defense until the start of WWI. The author also chronicles a four-year period in which 142 barnstorming pilots died and swarming spectators picked their broken bodies and aircraft for souvenirs. This period history presents ample biographical details for readers who enjoy rivalries. --Rick Roche
“A meticulously researched account of the first few hectic, tangled years of aviation and the curious characters who pursued it . . . a worthy companion to Richard Holmes’s marvelous history of ballooning, Falling Upwards.”—Time
“The daredevil scientists and engineers who forged the field of aeronautics spring vividly to life in Lawrence Goldstone’s history.”—Nature
“The history of the development of an integral part of the modern world and a fascinating portrayal of how a group of men and women achieved a dream that had captivated humanity for centuries.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“Captivating and wonderfully presented . . . a fine book about these rival pioneers.”—The Wall Street Journal
“[A] vivid story of invention, vendettas, derring-do, media hype and patent fights [with] modern resonance.”—Financial Times
“A powerful story that contrasts soaring hopes with the anchors of ego and courtroom.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A riveting narrative about the pioneering era of aeronautics in America and beyond . . . Goldstone raises questions of enduring importance regarding innovation and the indefinite exertion of control over ideas that go public.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A superbly crafted retelling of a story familiar to aviation buffs, here greatly strengthened by fresh perspectives, rigorous analyses, comprehensible science, and a driving narrative.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Birdmen is so much more than the story of man’s leap into the clouds. Exhilarating, exasperating, and inspiring in equal measure, the Wright brothers’ tale is a parable for modern times, told in fascinating detail and gripping prose by Lawrence Goldstone.”—Dr. Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
“Meticulously researched and illuminating, Birdmen unveils the forgotten flyboys who gave America an invention to win wars, spread peace, and advance her destiny—air power.”—Adam Makos, internationally bestselling author of A Higher Call
“The history of human flight goes way beyond the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. Lawrence Goldstone skillfully tells the rest of the story about the dreamers history has forgotten, and it’s a helluva story superbly told. Birdmen is a wondrous journey from takeoff to landing.”—Bill Griffeth, author of By Faith Alone
“With riveting prose, rich research, and an uncommon talent for weaving heroic and tragic tales of complex persons with accounts of invention and institutions, Lawrence Goldstone reveals the human dimensions of the birth of modern times in this exhilarating book.”—Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
“Lawrence Goldstone offers a beautifully written account of the dawn of powered flight. It’s a great story of technical innovation, fierce competition, and powerful personalities. Goldstone provides a vibrant narrative of the Wright brothers battling Glenn Curtiss over government contracts, patents, and prizes, and describes issues pertinent to today’s business professionals and military personnel alike.”—Colonel John Abbatiello, PhD, USAF (Retired), author ofAnti-Submarine Warfare in World War I: British Naval Aviation and the Defeat of the U-Boats
“Goldstone provides a fresh, engaging, and compelling narrative that significantly enhances our understanding of one of the most remarkable stories in American history. He expertly documents the achievements and frailties of the Wright brothers as they pursued manned flight and attempted to profit from their breakthrough ideas. This well-written book is a pleasure to read.”—Tom Nicholas, William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
“The first aviators took to the skies with amazing courage and ingenuity, but, it turns out, also fighting like warbirds. None of these dogfights was was more epic and vital to flying’s future than the one waged by Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss. Beautifully told, Goldstone’s book gives full vent to the action, while in the process weaving a compelling and sophisticated narrative of aviation’s earliest days.”—Robert O’Connell, author of The Ghosts of Cannae
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The age was filled with colorful, clever, daring men (and women) who's stories fill these pages with a vibrant, squabbling one upsmanship that drove aviation forward technically and culturally. For the first decade the only real markets for the airplane were for competition flying and veblenian thrill seeking by the "birdmen" who dared to take these fragile contraptions aloft. Their daring and disasters burned flight into the consciousness of the times, but these willowy contraptions of lacquered silk and wood, so filled with possibilities, were too feeble to be exploited for practical use. So the money men, who could smell the scent of profit, and the newspapermen, who could taste the blood in the water, put up thousands of dollars in prize money to fund the aerial competitions which drove the technology forward.
And this is where the crux of our story lies. Orville and Wilbur Wright, having designed, constructed and flown the first practical, controllable heavier than air vehicle, filed for and received patents for their method for controlled flight in America and several European countries. If you've ever been involved in writing a patent application, you know how the game is played. You seek to lay claim to so much more than the actual device you have designed. The goal is to make your claims as broad as possible to prevent competitors from slipping past the area you have fenced off in your patent and competing with you on equal terms. This is just what the Wrights intended. Having identified a critical feature of the control of natural bird flight, the fine control of the shape of the wing to stabilize the lateral (or level) flight, they sought exclusive rights to all means for controlling that stability. To their minds the true innovation in their patent was not the specifics of how they twisted the wings, altering the flow of air to effect stable flight, but that fact that you could do this. Thus any means of control by altering the flow of air over the wings would be in violation of their patent.
There is no doubt that Wilbur Wright was a meticulous and innovative researcher. His work and insights were laudatory. But having reached controllable manned flight first, he sought to monopolize access to the skies. He used the courts to try and enforce their patent rights and extract crippling license fees ($1000 per plane sold or about 20% of the sale price) from his competitors. Had those competitors simply acquiesced to Wilbur's demands, they would not have been in a position to compete. The Wright brothers would have controlled aviation development world wide for nearly two decades.
There were many skilled researchers working world wide on heavier than air flight, (many of them for far longer than the Wrights had been), and they were not going to give in so easily to the Wright's patent infringement claims. Before Kitty Hawk, aviation research had been a competitive but collegial world. The Wrights blew that world apart with their patent war. Their legal wrangling alienated them and stifled American aviation innovation. Wilbur Wright's obsession with the legal battle monopolized his time so that he failed to produce any significant innovations while his competitors strove diligently to further aviation...and their pocket books.
Birdmen is a fascinating story that is well told. It has its flaws, and there is nothing new in this retelling, but your time will be well spent getting to know the colorful history of the early days of aviation.
Includes a reasonable amount of technical information without being overwhelming. Initially, I thought it could have contained more technical details, but after few google searches and U Tube lectures on topics such as: Aspect Ratio, Truss Designs, the Tetrahedral wing championed by Alexander Bell and the AEA, Dihedral versus Anhedral wing angles, Center of Gravity and much more, I was quickly convinced that, much more technology would have become overwhelming for the arm chair historian. And, that is what Google and U Tube is good at.
The Wright brothers showed incredible technical innovation to produce their first few airplanes. They developed the idea of twisting the wing surface for lateral control. They created wind tunnels and through testing determined the proper aspect ratio, power requirements and wing shape. They constructed laminated spruce propellors when there was still doubt by some on the best method of transferring engine power to air. They knew any 8 to 9 horsepower engine weighing less that 160 pounds would work. The first engine was water cooled and had no carburetor. Gasoline dripped into the cylinders from a tank mounted/ above the motor, then vaporized and mixed with air due to engine heat. Then, they stopped being innovators and engineers and became businessmen. They obtained a patent on their design and the idea of lateral control. They focused their attention on sales and used legal action to harass every aviation innovation, airplane improvement, air show or any thing pertaining to flight, both in Europe and the states. Their goal was a monopoly on flight. Wilbur's seemingly obsessive compulsive personality reminds me of a greedy Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) on steroids. To be fair, they deserved to have profited from their incredible technical break through, but like a dam breaking, it was impossible to stop the run away advancements made by others.
The book covers many engineers and pilots associated with the evolution of early flight and is more than just another book on the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss. Because the Wrights focused much of their ire on Glenn Curtiss, their legal battles become a major part of the American history of flight and one of the reasons that by World War I, Europe had jumped ahead of us in aviation. While the Wrights focused on business issues, Curtiss continued to seek fresh applications for existing technology in order to create new products. "The list of his inventions and achievements is immense and includes the seaplane, retractable landing gear, twist-grip throttles for motorcycles, dual controls, the enclosed cockpit, tricycle landing gear, the step pontoon, the watertight compartment, the airboat, and a number of machines to manufacture airplane components. He created the first civilian flying school and the first military flying school, conducted both the first simulated bombing run and first use of firearms from an aircraft, and delivered the first radio communication from the skies. Just a very interesting book.
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