Thursday, July 09, 2015

The litigious Wright Brothers

I've just finished reading David McCullough's latest hagiography, this one dealing with The Wright Brothers. I enjoyed it, of course--that's Mr McCullough's specialty. And I'd quite forgotten, if indeed I ever knew, that Orville Wright not only long outlived his older and more dominant brother, but long enough to see their invention leap the Atlantic Ocean, lay waste to Warsaw and Hiroshima, and even begin to soar aloft on a stream of hot air. The author doesn't much dwell on these later years, preferring to spend his time on the day-to-day minutiae of the brothers' lives, and indeed that of their sister Katharine, treating us to all their letters home, and from home to them. (Sometimes, I confess, to the point where my eyelids drooped.) Alas, Mr McCullough stops the detail where it gets interesting, when Wilbur and Orville began to sue their competitors and effectively stopped American aviation development dead in its tracks. As a result, when American pilots went to war in 1917, they had to fly British and French warplanes. Only then did US government pressure American airframe manufacturers to pool their patents, so progress could begin again. It was as if Steve Jobs had patented the smartphone, or if the first man to kindle a flame in his cave had claimed the exclusive right to build all future cookfires. 

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