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Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Patent Battles

The Wright brothers were granted a patent by the U.S. Patent Office in 1906 for a flying machine. This patent was based on the application they had submitted in 1903 that had included a detailed description and drawings of their control system as applied to a glider. Their application described wing warping, as well as the entire system that allowed the aircraft to be controlled in forward flight. The Wrights had also stated in their application that a feature like ailerons could provide lateral control.

Obtaining a patent meant that no one could copy the Wrights’ design without their permission and without paying them a royalty. However, the success of the Wrights’ design, intensified by Octave Chanute’s well meaning publicizing of their achievements, was too tempting for other aircraft designers to ignore. Furthermore, the concept of lateral control was so basic to any aircraft design that, without it, no aircraft could have flown successfully.

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The AEA's first project, a glider, was the group's first experience
with flying.

Glenn Curtiss was the main target of the Wrights’ patent suits in the U.S. Curtiss was one of the original members of the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), which the inventor Alexander Graham Bell had established on September 30, 1907. The group consisted of a group of aviation enthusiasts Bell had drawn together to build a practical airplane using the $20,000 that his wife Mabel contributed toward the effort.

The Wrights respected Bell and felt he would see that their patent was not violated. So when an AEA member, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, wrote to the Wrights in January 1908 for information about aircraft construction, the Wrights answered promptly and also referred him to their patent and other publications for more details.

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Glenn Curtiss, F.W. "Casey” Baldwin, and others stand before the Red Wing before its test flight.


The AEA’s first aircraft was the Red Wing, which Selfridge designed. Named after the color of its cloth wing covering, it was tested on March 12, 1908, in Hammondsport, New York. It looked much like a Wright biplane, but did not incorporate wing warping. It also added a second elevator in back and used trusses to curve the lower set of wings upward and the upper set of wings downward so they almost touched. It flew for 319 feet (97 meters) at an altitude of around 200 feet (61 meters) before crashing.


The first powered aircraft built by the AEA was called the Red Wing, after the color of its silk fabric wings. Lt. Thomas Seldfridge of the U.S. Army designed it, and Casey Baldwin piloted it on its first flight of 319 feet. It was powered by a 40-hp Curtiss V-8 engine.


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The Red Wing crashed into frozen Keuka Lake after flying 120 feet on March 17, 1908, wrecking it beyond all repair.

AEA member Casey Baldwin designed the AEA’s next project, the White Wing. It resembled the Red Wing except that it featured wheels rather than sled runners and had small ailerons at the upper wingtips that provided lateral control.

Frederick Baldwin and Selfridge each flew the White Wing, achieving flights of 285 feet, 100 feet, and 240 feet (87 meters, 30 meters, and 73 meters). Then, on May 21, Curtiss tried his hand. Obviously, he had a special knack for flying—he flew an amazing 1,017 feet (310 meters). When John McCurdy tried next, he flew 720 feet (219 meters) but wrecked the plane while landing.

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The June Bug at Stony Brook Farm, July 4, 1908. Glenn Curtiss is the center
figure with the necktie.

The AEA’s next project was the June Bug, a plane designed and piloted by Curtiss. The group hoped to fly this plane to win the prize offered by the Aero Club of America and Scientific American magazine for the first plane to fly a kilometer in a straight line (0.6 mile or 3,168 feet).

Curtiss first flew the June Bug on June 21, 1908—flying more than 3,000 feet (914 meters). The AEA decided to go for the prize on July 4. The Aero Club contacted the Wrights and offered to postpone the attempt so they could enter too. But the Wrights were busy; in addition, they would have had to put wheels on their plane and find a field large enough for an unassisted takeoff run, one of the requirements. So they declined to participate.

On July 4, on his second attempt, Curtiss flew 5,360 feet (1,634 meters or 1.6 kilometers) in one minute and 40 seconds, capturing the Scientific American trophy. Orville Wright contacted Curtiss with the warning that they had not given permission for use of their control system “for exhibitions or in a commercial way.” The starting bell in the fight had rung.

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The June Bug in flight with Glenn Curtiss at the controls, summer 1908. The triangular panels at the four wingtips are Alexander Graham Bell's original aileron concept.


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J. McCurdy flew the AEA's Silver Dart on February 23, 1909 in Nova Scotia, Canada. It was the first airplane flight in Canada.


The AEA went on to build three more aircraft. One, the Silver Dart, was their most successful aircraft and the first plane flown in Canada. The group then disbanded, having built the practical aircraft it had set out to build. Along the way, Bell had applied for a patent on the AEA airplanes titled "A New and Useful Improvement in Flying Machines," which listed 28 innovations. These included Bell's ailerons, although they were not referred to that way in the application, but their operation was described in detail. The patent was granted in December 1911, much to the annoyance of the Wrights.

When the AEA dissolved, Curtiss moved into more businesslike ventures. He teamed with Augustus Herring, former associate of Octave Chanute, and formed the Herring-Chanute Company. The company built the Gold Flier, sometimes known as the Golden Bug, which, in an attempt to avoid the ailerons the Wrights had described in their patent, introduced ailerons that were mounted between the two biplane wings. Curtiss first flew the biplane on June 16, 1909, at Morris Park in the Bronx in New York. Ten days later, he flew his first circle in front of 5,000 paying viewers. Then he moved to Mineola on Long Island, and on July 17, won the Scientific American trophy for the second time, flying 25 miles (40 kilometers).

The Wrights had seen enough. They filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Curtiss and the Herring-Curtiss Company charging that Curtiss and the company had used the Wrights’ lateral control and aileron design without permission. The Aeronautic Society, which had purchased Curtiss's Golden Flier and was flying it frequently at exhibitions, agreed to pay the Wrights a percentage of gate receipts from their exhibitions. Curtiss chose to contest the suit.

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The Curtiss Reims Racer was used for competing in the 1909 Gordon Bennett Cup Race at Reims, France.

In the meantime, Curtiss had left for France to fly a modified Golden Flier—the Reims Racer—in the first major international air show, La Grande Semaine d’Aviation (The Grand Week of Aviation), which would be held in August 1909. On August 28, 1909, Curtiss became the recipient of the James Gordon Bennett Cup for flying the fastest average speed over a 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) closed course. He flew the Reims Racer with the rudder locked and demonstrated before tens of thousands that his ailerons had no steering effect even when performing violent roll maneuvers. But this action failed to help him in the ensuing court battles.

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Competing against Europe's top aviators, Glenn Curtiss won the Gordon
Bennett Cup speed race on August 29, 1909

The battles that followed drained the financial resources of both parties with legal and court fees. Lawyers attempted to bring Curtiss and the Wrights together for an amicable settlement, but had no success. When Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, the Wright family blamed Curtiss' stubborn refusal to back down, claiming that Wilbur had lost his health over concern for the patent litigation.

The final verdict came in 1913. Orville Wright, now without Wilbur, was the unmistakable winner. All delays and appeals had been exhausted. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Curtiss to cease making airplanes with two ailerons that operated simultaneously in opposite directions.

Unexpected help for Curtiss came from the automobile magnate Henry Ford. Ford had won a similarly difficult action with patents relating to the automobile, coincidentally heard by the same judge. Ford's loss of the case would have virtually destroyed his business. Curtiss visited Ford in Detroit, who advised Curtiss to use Ford’s lawyer. Curtiss took his advice.

The lawyer encouraged Curtiss to bait Orville to reopen the litigation by devising a new configuration for lateral control using the Langley aerodrome that hung in the Smithsonian. The idea was to persuade the court that Curtiss’ plane was based on Langley’s design, not on the Wrights’. The attempt was unsuccessful, but the case dragged on. Ford's lawyer was able to persuade the court to temporarily stay the old verdict, and the legal battles started again.

The suit finally ended with the advent of World War I when the aircraft manufacturers established the Manufacturers' Aircraft Association to coordinate wartime aircraft manufacturing in the United States and formed a patent pool with the approval of the U.S. government. All patent litigation ceased automatically. Royalties were reduced to one percent and free exchange of inventions and ideas took place among all the airframe builders.

This arrangement was to have lasted only for the duration of the war, but in 1918, at the war's end, the litigation was never renewed. By this time, Orville had sold his interest in the Wright Company to a group of New York financiers and had retired from the business.


Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of trouble shooting, research and development, innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7