Most people attribute Wilbur and Orville Wright with the invention of the airplane which is, of course, incorrect. Experimentation with and designs of flying machines can be found as far back in history as Leonardo da Vinci. However, what the Wright brothers did accomplish was to develop a powered flying machine that actually worked and proved human flight was possible. Once it was shown that human flight was possible, it was simply a matter of time until there was an aviation industry including commercial flights and the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration. While the Wright brothers certainly are relevant in this history of commercial flight, their invention is also relevant in several other, perhaps not as widely understood ways. This paper briefly discusses three of these issues: 1) specific design innovations of the Wright brothers; 2) patent issues related to their invention; and 3) the ‘open source’ nature of the Wright brothers’ invention. All three of these are still extremely relevant today.
The Wright Brothers’ experimentation with manned flight began with gliders, and they worked on several designs for at least three years prior to their moving to powered flight. Of course, their work was based, in large part, on previous designs and writing from the nineteenth century and they simply hoped to improve on those previous ideas and concepts (Wittmer and Bieger 9). So, by the time the first successful powered flight of an aircraft under human control took place in 1903, the Wright Brothers had experienced several failures and the design was constantly being changed—sometimes slightly and sometimes drastically.
In fact, it was not until nearly two years after that first flight that the Wright brothers were able to finally identify the specific design changes needed to stabilize the aircraft and avoid the frequent crashes that were happening until then. Specifically, they increased the size of the elevator and rudder to nearly double the original and also relocated them both so they were twice as far away from the wings as in their previous designs (Wittmer and Bieger 9). In addition, the brothers slightly angled the wings and added two pieces they called “blinkers” between the elevators, positioned vertically (Wittmer and Bieger 9). Finally, they added a feature that is still used on all aircraft, by placing the control for the rudder on a separate handle (Wittmer and Bieger 9). These modifications in design finally resulted in stabile flights that no longer ended in crashes and convinced the Wright brothers’ that there was serious potential for aircraft to be used in transporting passengers. Flight length increased to 40 minutes. Just five years after their initial shaky and very brief flight, the Wright brothers were involved with the first passenger flight in America (Wittmer and Bieger 9). Thus, the commercial airline industry was initiated by the Wright brothers in 1907, making their invention relevant today.
Another significant element of the Wright brothers’ design was their use of a wind tunnel to test their airplane’s aerodynamic capabilities. This was accomplished by using a belt-driven fan powered by a steam engine located in their bicycle shop (Meyer 127). While the wind tunnel was invented three decades earlier, the Wright brothers were the first to identify a way to avoid the lack of smooth airflow that had plagued the invention previously. By simply attaching slats in front of the fan, they corrected the problem and subsequently used the wind tunnel to test their wing designs, until they developed what they considered the ultimate shape and structure (Meyer 127). Certainly, the use of wind tunnel technology—perfected by the Wright brothers—is still instrumental in the design and testing of many inventions today, including aircraft as well as vehicles.
Without doubt, the Wright brothers were the first in history to develop a powered aircraft and prove that it had practical value as a method of transportation. However, when applying for a patent, to what degree would they be credited with the invention of the airplane? One of the key principles in patent law is disclosure, which implies that an inventor is granted the right to control an invention as long as it is proven by disclosure that he or she is the originator of that design (Chiang 1213). In reality, the Wright brothers did not invent the idea of aircraft, but simply a specific design for a motorized wooden glider. Therefore, it could be assumed that they only had the right to apply for a patent applicable to similar wooden gliders. However, the law viewed the invention more broadly and the Wrights were given a patent covering aircraft with wings and rudders (Chiang 1214). At the same time, their patent did not apply to any and all versions of aircraft that would later be developed and constructed, but was narrowly focused.
This issue related to patents is one that is still relevant today, since many inventors are given control over a much more limited scope related to their invention than they prefer, or perhaps even deserve. Therefore, just as the Wright brothers were not given a patent that applied to all aircraft, regardless of design, but one limited to more closely represent what they actually created, inventors today face similar circumstances (Chiang 1214). Otherwise, the patent court could have allowed the Wright brothers to have monopoly control over any future flying machine in the future.
Patent law, in the case of the Wright brothers, was applied in such a way to attempt to recognize the significance of their invention, while also acknowledging the reality of the invention—it was based on previously stated and published designs of flying machines. Just as it would have been unreasonable to withhold a patent from the Wright brothers since they were obviously not the originators of the idea of flying machines, it was likewise unfair to grant them full rights over any future design of airplane (Anderson, A History 14). Specifically then, what the Wright brothers did contribute to the design and construction of aircraft—a rudder control that connected “yaw and roll” (Chiang 1215)—was properly credited to them. Many inventors today are likewise given credit for a specific application or modification of ideas or designs that were already in existence.
Currently, the idea of open source is most often connected with software applications that allow users free access. But, it is interesting to note that during the days of the Wright brothers, they had little desire to keep their invention secret but, rather, wanted to share what they learned in an open format. Indeed, they were simply continuing a practice that was common at that time, as many others who worked on developing a successful flying machine also contributed to a shared knowledge pool. This was indicated by the contents of a letter written by Wilbur Wright to the Smithsonian Institution in 1899 requesting detailed information regarding existing knowledge and designs for aircraft. He wrote, in part, “I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success” (Anderson, Inventing Flight 89). The fact that he felt free to request such information, as well the Smithsonian’s willingness to provide it, indicates that efforts to create the first successful powered flying machine were not shrouded in secrecy and neither were individuals hesitant to share what they already knew.
The Wright brothers also made it clear that they had no intention of keeping whatever knowledge they gained from experiments with new designs to themselves. Another line from Wilbur’s letter stated his intention to “add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success” (Wright, Kelly and Weissman 87). Clearly, the Wright brothers were primarily concerned with developing a successful airplane and were less concerned with obtaining whatever fame or financial reward may come as a result. The pen source nature of this process was also indicated by ongoing correspondence between the Wrights and Octave Chanute who had published a book detailing research on flight up to that point. Chanute was a wealthy man who eventually worked closely with the Wright brothers to overcome many of the technological issues related to successful flights.
The consistent theme apparent in observing the behavior of nearly all of those who were experimenting with the design of airplanes during the early part of the twentieth century is simply a desire to succeed. There is little indication of a desire to become wealthy as a result of this research, as indicated by the Wright brothers themselves, who stated that they spent their own money and were not concerned with recovering it (Wright et al. 87). The willingness of most other inventors to share information with others working toward a similar goal is also noteworthy. Every indication is that the consensus opinion during that time of invention was primarily to solve the critical issues of flight. This attitude is relevant today as well, since there are still some who are more concerned with achieving a result such as the collaborative effort to develop the recent TM800 Turboshaft Engine. In that respect, those that are willing to share information with others to obtain giant leaps forward, rather than gaining monetary compensation for their success, push the fields of engineering and innovation that much further.
This brief review of the Wright brothers’ invention clearly shows how it is still relevant today. Of course, the airplane itself is an indispensable tool for transportation of passengers as well as cargo around the world. Some of their designs are still included as part of all airplanes flying today. In addition, the Wright brothers’ experiences with obtaining a patent for their flying machine are similar to the pattern still being practiced today. In spite of the fact that they did not invent the idea of the airplane, they were granted patent rights related to what they did produce. Finally, the open source nature of the invention process that existed during the time the Wright brothers were designing their airplane, is similar to work that many today are undertaking to address a specific problem or issue, without a desire for obtaining personal wealth.
Anderson, John D., Jr. A History of Aerodynamics and Its Impact on Flying Machines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
---. Inventing Flight: the Wright Brothers and Their Predecessors. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Chiang, Tun-Jen. Defining Patent Scope by the Novelty of the Idea. Washington University Law Review, vol. 89 no. 6, 2012, pp. 1211-1268.
Meyer, Peter D. The Airplane as an Open-Source Invention. Revue économique vol. 61 no. 1, 2013, 115-132.
Roseberry, C.R. Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.
Wittmer, Andreas and Thomas Bieger. Fundamentals and Structure of Aviation Systems (pp. 5-38). In Andreas Wittmer, Thomas Bieger and Roland Müller (eds.), Aviation Systems. Berlin: Springer Texts in Business and Economics, 2011.
Wright, Orville, with Fred C. Kelly and Alan Weissman. How We Invented the Airplane: An Illustrated History. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1954.