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As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, author Seth Shulman tells a little-known tale from aviation history. The protagonist of Unlocking the Sky is Glenn Hammond Curtiss, an airplane builder, pilot, and noted rival of the Wright brothers. Although Curtiss was not involved with flying machines when Orville and Wilbur took to the air in December 1903, the patent awarded to the Wrights for their Flyer would be a thorn in Curtiss’ side throughout his career. Shulman focuses on Curtiss’ story between two particularly fascinating events: the failed attempt by Samuel Langley, head of the Smithsonian Institution, to fly his aerodrome over the Potomac River just days before the Wright brothers’ first flight; and Curtiss’ subsequent reconstruction and flight of the aerodrome in 1914 at the behest of Charles Walcott, Langley’s successor at the Smithsonian. Langley’s highly publicized failure earned him harsh criticism in the press and Congress. By using Langley’s aerodrome 11 years later, Curtiss was trying to dispel the Wrights’ claim to first flight and, not incidentally, to cast doubt on their patent suit against him. Curtiss’ background as a champion bicycle racer and bicycle shop owner paralleled that of the Wrights. His move into building and racing motorcycles, as well as the world speed record he set on a motorcycle of his own design, showed his desire to push the limits of the latest technology. Shulman portrays Curtiss as the consummate technician and flyer when he shifts his focus to airplanes. The Wright brothers, on the other hand, are characterized as aggressive monopolists with a single-minded desire to control and profit from any craft that entered the skies. This relatively unbalanced casting of the facts in a light most favorable to Curtiss is the one significant drawback to Shulman’s retelling of the story. As a pilot, Curtiss did amass numerous world records and flying firsts, including a one-kilometer flight in the June Bug in 1908; winning the Gordon Bennett Trophy at the Grande Semaine d’Aviation in France in 1909; and an Albany-to-Manhattan flight in 1910. Each of these accomplishments earned Curtiss the prestigious Scientific American Trophy. But in nearly every instance of a successful flight by Curtiss, the reader is told that the Wrights were apparently unwilling to participate in the event. However, the book fails to mention instances such as the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York City, when high winds forced Curtiss to cancel a roundtrip flight from Governors Island to Grant’s Tomb, while Wilbur Wright successfully piloted his plane from Governors Island to the Statue of Liberty and back. THE WRIGHT CASE The book’s discussion of the Wright brothers ultimately revolves around their patent dispute with Curtiss. Proponents of an “open systems” approach are sure to appreciate this presentation of Curtiss’ plight. The author favors the view that Curtiss and others should have had free and unencumbered access to all information for the betterment of airplane development. Rather inconsistently, Shulman also advocates that some inventions are appropriate for patenting and monopoly control. For example, the author opines that it was perfectly acceptable to patent the telephone, but not the first heavier-than-air flying machine. Shulman seems to place blame for the lengthy patent litigation between Curtiss and the Wrights squarely on the brothers. The book gives little attention to the Wrights’ ultimate victory. In the end, the story also glosses over how, upon the rendering of the appellate court decision, with no further opportunity for appeal, it was Curtiss who precipitated further litigation by creating another version of his aircraft specifically designed to goad Orville back into court. Whether a century ago or today, patent suits often take on an inexplicably personal tone. In the end, a modified open-systems approach was forced upon Curtiss and the Wrights by the U.S. government in the form of a compulsory cross-license agreement as the United States entered World War I. Overall, Unlocking the Sky is a good choice for those interested in learning about Glenn Hammond Curtiss and others associated with early aviation. There is even much to be learned here about the Wright brothers. But the reader must keep in mind that the author is partial to Curtiss’ side of the story. Reynold Aust is an associate in D.C.’s Hogan & Hartson, focusing on IP litigation and patent prosecution. He can be reached at [email protected].

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