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100 Years of Turbulence

A century ago today, the Wright brothers took turns steering one of the first powered heavier-than-air aircraft on a series of controlled flights, the longest of which lasted fifty-seven seconds.

I say "one of the first" because there is a bit of controversy about who was first to fly, depending on how Clintonian you want to get about the meaning of "flight".

If simply getting airborne is the criterion, honors have to go to the New Zealand eccentric Richard Pearse, who in 1902 built a giant flying table that enabled him to reach an altitude of several dozen feet and crash into gorse hedges.

If powered flight without a pilot on board qualifies, then credit is due to Charles Parson's powered glider (1883) and Alexander Mozhaiski's steam-powered [!] monoplane (1884).

If reaching an altitude of eight inches counts as flying, then put your hands together for Clement Ader, who made the first manned flight in 1890 - also using steam power - and then improved his aircraft so much that it could not get off the ground at all.

If you believe that a qualifying flight has to be sustained and controlled, but you have lenient standards of proof, then you should consider the claims of Gustave Whitehead, who built a plane that modern science shows to be stable and controllable, but neglected to bring a camera or logbook along on his maiden voyage.

If you are very demanding and insist that the plane not only stay in the air under its own power, but land at the same point it took off, to demonstrate full control, then you'll be wanting to congratulate the Wright brothers. In 1904, they rolled up their sleeves, built an improved version of their flyer, and on October 20 made a circular flight a little less than a mile long. Not even a year later, Orville was able to fly for more than 24 miles, staying airborne for 39 minutes.

That's true flight by anybody's criteria except the Brazilians, who insist on the tortured prerequisite of takeoff from a dead stop in still air, just so they can cheer the Brazilian scion and one-man freak show Alberto Santos-Dumont. Dumont made waves in Paris by flying a giant powered box kite for several hundred yards in October 1906, gradually perfecting his technology until it could 'easily cover 200 meters of ground'. From there, it was a direct line to the Embraer jet.

The bickering about who was first in the air obscures the real accomplishment of the Wright brothers, which was the careful and scientific approach they took to the problem of aircraft design. The Wrights were the first to do wind-tunnel tests, correcting longstanding errors in aeronautical theory, and they systematically applied their experimental results in designing each subsequent version of their gliders and aircraft. Unlike most of the other pioneers of aviation, they actually understood what they were doing. And they were superb craftsmen, who could turn abstract design principles into a handsomely assembled machine.

Unfortunately, like countless engineers before and after them, the Wright brothers were also dour, stubborn, and completely lacking in basic social skills. They wanted nothing more than to sell out and be free to pursue their aeronautical research, but alienated all potential buyers by refusing to demo the flyer until a contract had been signed. This stubbornness grew partly out of their obsession with having the invention stolen. After proving to themselves and the world that powered flight was possible, they basically locked the airplane away and said to each other 'let's litigate!'.

Having just invented the airplane, the Wrights stopped flying for two and a half years.

Of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Almost as soon as the news of the first flight got out, the brothers received a threatening letter from the nefarious glider pilot and charlatan Augustus Herring, who had rushed to patent parts of the Wright brothers' own design after a visit to Kitty Hawk, and wanted in on the action (the patent would be denied; Herring went on to a storied career as an aviation con artist).

The Wright brothers' first priority was to patent their airplane, and they duly received their patent in 1904. It didn't just cover their specific design, but the whole concept of three-axis control - being able to independently steer the aircraft in pitch, roll, and yaw - that was critical to powered flight. This patent became a mighty weapon that the Wright brothers used for the next thirteen years to sue the bejesus out of anyone else who tried to fly an airplane.

It may not have been a problem if the Wrights themselves had kept working on aircraft design, or if the original flyer had been good enough to license. But neither was the case - the Wrights became so consumed with their lawsuits that they had no time or energy left for further work, essentially becoming the SCO of the early aviation age. And their airplane design, while innovative, was mostly innovative in the wrong ways.

One major problem the flyer had was instability. If you take almost any modern airplane and deflect its nose or tip its wings in flight, it will gradually return to its equilibrium position - one reason why planes stay aloft even in severe turbulence. The plane is said to exhibit positive dynamic stability. The Wright flyer had negative stability - if you perturbed it, it would get further out of whack until the pilot corrected the motion, or until the plane returned to the ground "without further attention on the part of the aeronaut".

A second problem was the idiosyncratic technique the Wrights used to turn the plane. On modern planes, a pilot banks the wings by moving small control surfaces on the trailing edge of the wing called ailerons. The Wrights rejected ailerons in favor of wing warping, where the actual wing shape would be changed by the judicious pulling of wires. This technique was as elegant as it was ultimately ineffective.

Steering in general was a problem - there wasn't a lot keeping the flyer pointed in a steady direction. The forward 'rudder' (what we now call a canard wing) made things worse, because the plane naturally wanted to weather-vane around. The plane layout we're all used to (long fuselage with a tail and horizontal stabilizer behind the wing) actually predated the Wright's design by almost a century, but the Wrights had rejected it in favor of a canard wing, so that they could get the maximum amount of lift possible from their awful engine.

This engine was terribly underpowered, even by the standards of the day. The Wright brothers knew how to build airframes, not engines, and the only reason they were able to get their flyer airborne in the first place was because their brilliant propeller design and high-lift wing made up for the great crappiness of the power plant.

A fellow aviator, Glenn Curtiss, knew how to build quite wonderful lightweight engines, and in one of the great 'what-ifs' of aviation history offered to go into partnership with the Wrights in 1906. But the brothers turned him down, and subsequently worked hard to sue Curtiss out of the airplane business. In the years to come, the Curtiss-Wright rivalry would become the most bitter of the many legal disputes surrounding the brothers. Curtiss, backed by Alexander Graham Bell, scurried to build new airplanes faster than the Wrights could win court cases against him, going to great lengths to try to establish prior art or at least narrow the scope of the patent ruling. Despite the many innovations in the Curtiss design (ailerons, empennage, a new engine) the court took the broadest possible view of the Wright patent. Curtiss wasn't a thief - his designs were themselves revolutionary improvements, and he was motivated by a passion for aviation at least as great as the Wright brothers' - but the rivalry was so bitter that the brothers would not license to him.

For the Wright brothers, the patent struggle was a series of Pyrrhic victories. They wanted justice and credit, and ideally the freedom to pursue their research further. Instead they found themselves consumed by litigation, and forced to watch others catch up with and overtake their technical lead, particularly in Europe, where areonautical research had strong state support. The endless legal battle over the airplane patent may even have contributed to Wilbur Wright's early death - he came down with typhoid at an especially rough patch in the legal proceedings, and died at age 45. His brother Orville lived long enough to see the Wright company taken over by Curtiss in 1929, in the most bitter of ironies. Neither brother made any substantive contribution to aviation after 1908.

The United States government finally put an end to the patent strife in 1917. Mindful of the impending war, it insisted that the rival parties form a patent pool - in effect, removing patent barriers to creating new airplane designs. Together with the war, the patent pool inspired a golden age of American aviation. The pool stayed in effect until 1975; companies who wanted to preserve a competitive advantage did so using trade secrets (such as Boeing's secret recipe for hanging jet engines under an airliner wing).

I believe that the Wright patent story drives home the intellectual bankruptcy of our patent system. The whole point of patents is supposed to be to encourage innovation, reward entrepreneurship, and make sure useful inventions get widely disseminated. But in this case (and in countless others, in other fields), the practical effect of patents turned out to be to hinder innovation - a patent war erupts, and ends up hamstringing truly innovative technologies, all without doing much for the inventors, who weren't motivated by money in the first place.

It's illuminating to point out that all three transformative technologies of the twentieth century - aviation, the automobile, and the digital computer - started off in patent battles and required a voluntary suspension of hostilities (a collective decision to ignore patents) before the technology could truly take hold.

The Wright brothers won every patent case they fought, and it did them absolutely no good. The prospect of a fortune wasn't what motivated them to build an airplane, but ironically enough they could have made a fortune had they just passed on the litigation. In 1905, the Wrights were five years ahead of any potential competitor, and posessed a priceless body of practical knowledge. Their trade secrets and accumulated experience alone would have made them the leaders in the field, especially if they had teamed up with Curtiss. Instead, they got to watch heavily government-subsidized programs in Europe take the technical lead in airplane design as American aviation stagnated.

If you are someone who believes that the Internet and computer software are a transformative technology on a par with aviation, you may find it interesting to note that there is now a patent cease-fire in effect in the world of software, the occasional high-profile infringement case notwithstanding. The reason for the cease-fire is simple: if companies like IBM, Xerox, and Sun were to begin fully enforcing their patent portfolios, it would mean an apocalypse of litigation for all software developers. Everyone understands that the health and growth of the Internet are contingent on ignoring the patent system as much as possible.

At the same time, more patents are being granted than ever before, for broader claims, and with an almost complete disregard for prior art. Entire companies - and not just legal firms - are basing business models on extracting money from the patent system without actually creating any products. And the boundaries of patent law are expanding. For the first time in history, it's possible to patent pure mathematical ideas (in the form of software patents), or even biological entities. The SARS virus was patented shortly after being isolated for the first time.

But if the patent system doesn't even work for the archetypal example - two inventors, working alone, who singlehandedly invent a major new technology - why do we keep it at all? Who really benefits, and who pays?

If this topic interests you, read Bruce Perens' wonderful essay on software patents, which states the case more articulately and cogently than I ever could.

And please join me in drinking a toast to those prickly Wright brothers, who for all their foibles did something amazing on this day, and deserve all the credit and respect they so clearly craved.

Credits: The first part of this essay is cribbed from the timeline of aviation firsts at the first-to-fly website, which makes up in substance what it lacks in navigability. The second part is cribbed from a series of excellent articles about the Wright brothers in this month's issue of FLYING magazine, including a layperson-accessible technical analysis of the original flyer and a very readable history of the brothers' post-Kitty Hawk career.

If you enjoyed this post, send me to Antarctica! I'm soliciting contributions to cover the cost of a six-week voyage to the Ross Sea in early 2016.

Read all about it on this Kickstarter page.

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