Glenn Curtiss and Theodor Ellyson at the controls of an A1

Glenn Curtiss and Theodor Ellyson at the controls of an A1

When the Wright Brothers took flight in 1903, Wilbur and Orville managed to solve a mystery that had stumped the world’s great minds for centuries. And in making that flight, the Wrights became the pioneers of what would be a remarkable period in the development of aviation technology. But instead of staying on the cutting edge, the brothers – particularly Wilbur — were obsessed with prestige and protecting their patent. Lawrence Goldstone, the author of the new book on the Wrights, says that fixation not only hurt the brothers. It threatened to derail the development of aviation across the country. Lawrence Goldstone joins guest host Susan Page to discuss “Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies.”


  • Lawrence Goldstone Author, "Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies". He is the author or co-author of fourteen books of fiction and nonfiction.

A Look At The Fight For Flight

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from “Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies.” © Lawrence Goldstone, 2014. Courtesy of Random House. All Rights Reserved.



  • 11:06:54

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is out with a cold. We know the Wright brothers as American heroes, the men who made the airplane, but in a new book, author Lawrence Goldstone reveals a much more complicated picture of Wilbur and Orville. They were difficult men who became more obsessed with preserving their place as the pioneers of flight than continuing to refine and advance the technology they had discovered.

  • 11:07:23

    MS. SUSAN PAGEAuthor Lawrence Goldstone joins us today to talk about his new book, "Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies." Larry Goldstone, thank you so much for being with us today.

  • 11:07:35

    MR. LAWRENCE GOLDSTONEThank you for having me.

  • 11:07:36

    PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at or find us on Facebook or Twitter. So you've written more than a dozen books. This is the first that is about flight. How did you find yourself writing a book about the Wright brothers?

  • 11:08:03

    GOLDSTONEWell, Susan, I employed a technique that is time-honored by historians everywhere and that's called blind dumb luck. What happened was I was working on a biography of a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher, New York Yankee Hall of Fame baseball pitcher named Lefty Gomez, and I was working on it with his daughter. And Lefty was famous for loving airplanes.

  • 11:08:28

    GOLDSTONEIn fact, once he stopped pitching a World Series game in 1937 to watch an airplane fly across the sky and then started pitching again. What I discovered was that Lefty had gained his love of aviation in 1915 at the San Francisco World's Fair as a 6-year-old boy watching the greatest aviator of the period, a man named Lincoln Beachey, fly.

  • 11:08:55

    GOLDSTONEI had never heard of Lincoln Beachey, neither had anyone else so I did a little research and found out that Lincoln Beachey was not only the greatest aviator of that period, but with apologies to Chuck Yeager, probably the greatest aviator of any period. Just to give you an idea, in Chicago in 1910, in front of half a million people on the lakefront at an air meet, Beachey was desperate to break the altitude record, which was 11,200 feet.

  • 11:09:22

    GOLDSTONENow, remember, people are flying in open cockpits in suits and the only way they could keep warm was to stuff newspapers in their suits. So Beachey decides to do this, but the only way he can do it is to use all his fuel on the way up. So the last day of the meet, close to twilight, Beachey takes his aircraft up and breaks the record. He gets to 11,600 feet. They had a barograph, an instrument to be able to measure altitude.

  • 11:09:49

    GOLDSTONEAnd then, starts circling down and sure enough, those half a million people see him come down with that propeller fixed because he had run out of fuel and Beachey is circling out over the lake where if he crashed, he would die and he ended up landing his airplane not 200 feet from where he took off, which is an unbelievable feat of flying.

  • 11:10:10

    GOLDSTONESo I said, this guy is great. And I did a little more research and I found that there were a lot of aviators, including one remarkable woman named Harriet Quimby, who I hope we can talk about in a little bit, and I proposed a book on these aviators to my editor. And he said, well, you know, that's pretty good, but nobody's ever heard of these people. Can you get the Wright brothers in it?

  • 11:10:31

    GOLDSTONEAnd I said, well, you know, the Wright brothers, people have been writing about them forever and there's lots of books. And he said, well, take a look. And I did some research and sure enough, the Wright brothers' story, the important story, I think, had yet to be written because people always either deify them or demonize them and that's how "Birdmen" came to be.

  • 11:10:52

    PAGESo let's go back to that period of time, the early 1900s. What was it that the Wright brothers figured out that nobody before them had managed to do?

  • 11:11:03

    GOLDSTONEThe trick was control. There were gliders. It wasn't so much -- although it was certainly difficult to keep objects in the air. There was a man named Otto Lilienthal, a German, who used to strap wings on or brace himself and run down hills and actually glide. And he was the most sophisticated aerodynamicist, if that's a word, of the day.

  • 11:11:31

    GOLDSTONEThe trick was once you get in the air, how do you control the aircraft? And Wilbur, there's a story that he figured it out by looking at an empty tube, an empty box from bicycle tubes, but, in fact, they all watched birds and they all rode bicycles. And what Wilbur -- Wilbur's great epiphany was that instead of looking for maximal control, you wanted an airplane that was maximally unstable in the sky, but one that you can manipulate control.

  • 11:12:04

    GOLDSTONEAnd they developed a technique called wing warping, which the back end of one wing went down while the other one went up and it was done with pulleys and cables. And that and how a propeller is structured were their two great insights and both by Wilbur, by the way.

  • 11:12:18

    PAGESo Wilbur had these great insights, these breakthroughs, but he does not emerge from your book as a completely sympathetic guy.

  • 11:12:26

    GOLDSTONEWell, he wasn't. You know, we tend to create icons out of people who were very complex. Wilbur -- in fact, at the end of the book, I called him a tragic enigma because Wilbur, to me, was one of the great intuitive scientists this country has ever produced. You have to remember that millennia had gone by with people trying to get into the air and Wilbur Wright never finished high school, never had a course in engineering, figured these out and then he and his brother -- 'cause Orville was a great craftsman, worked out a way to create an actual machine to put these principles into practice.

  • 11:13:11

    GOLDSTONEBut that doesn't mean that personally he had to be the most lovable person. And the other dichotomy was, Wilbur Wright was possibly one of the ten worst businessmen that ever walked the earth and he insisted on running a company. Here, he had JP Morgan helping him get it started and Belmont and Vanderbilt and all of these titans and they wanted to get him in the workshop, but he refused.

  • 11:13:38

    GOLDSTONEWhat he wanted to do was to sue Glenn Curtiss, who is the other protagonist of the book.

  • 11:13:41

    PAGESo people are not always so self aware, that's probably a theme in human history.

  • 11:13:45

    GOLDSTONEYeah. I mean, just because -- you can be brilliant in one area and not particularly brilliant in another.

  • 11:13:52

    PAGESo the Wright brothers devoted a lot of energy toward getting a patent for this new technology, a pioneer patent. What is that?

  • 11:14:02

    GOLDSTONEIn the late 1890s, Henry Billings Brown, a Supreme Court justice, the man who had written the Plessy versus Ferguson separate but equal decision, wrote in a case, Westinghouse versus Boyden Power Brake Company, that anyone who improves an art in a kind of gap way, this breakthrough way and does something completely original deserves a patent that not only protects the specific invention, but all the peripheral concepts that other people might put in place.

  • 11:14:39

    GOLDSTONESo the Wright brothers sought a patent under this pioneer patent statute which would have granted them a license and therefore licensing fees on every aircraft that subsequently went into the skies. And they went for four -- they didn't fly after December 1903, they didn't fly probably like -- they flew at Huffman prairie, but not really publically, but really publically until 1908.

  • 11:15:06

    PAGEBecause they were trying to protect this invention. So what were the consequences of that obsession with getting a pioneer patent?

  • 11:15:15

    GOLDSTONEWell, they underestimated how fast the technology would move and there's two basic consequences, both of them work badly for the Wright brothers. One is that it is a natural instinct that when you are trying to defend one concept, you're going to stay with it. You're not going to shift to another concept, which, more or less, admits that the first concept probably didn't deserve the breath of protection.

  • 11:15:42

    GOLDSTONEThe other was that other people were not going to respect the breadth of it and thought that the Wright brothers, what they sought, courts or no courts, was absurd so other much more advanced, ailerons, which was pioneered by Glenn Curtiss and Alexander Graham Bell, may have thought up the idea initially, the other concepts passed them by before they were granted their patent.

  • 11:16:09

    GOLDSTONESo by the time they put their aircraft commercially in the air, they were already more or less obsolete.

  • 11:16:17

    PAGESo did they eventually get the patent?

  • 11:16:18

    GOLDSTONEThey got the patent in 1906. They sued Curtiss. They won the lawsuit. The Wright Company failed. Curtiss thrived, which gives you a lesson for the present.

  • 11:16:29

    PAGEAnd today, could you get a patent like that?

  • 11:16:33

    GOLDSTONENo. Well, not officially. You can't get a pioneer patent in the sense that someone is going to say, for example, Microsoft can now collect licensing fees on any software for personal computers, but you can get patents -- patent law is so hazy because when you're dealing with technology, if you think about it, you're always chasing innovation.

  • 11:17:00

    GOLDSTONEThere is no lawyer, despite what they will tell you. There is no judge and there is no patent officer who will be as sophisticated about the technology they're passing judgment on as the person who is filing for the patent.

  • 11:17:10

    PAGEYou mentioned Glenn Curtiss, not as familiar a figure as the Wright brothers. Who was Glenn Curtiss?

  • 11:17:17

    GOLDSTONEGlenn Curtiss was a fascinating man from Hammondsport, New York whose parents gave him the middle name of Hammond because they loved the town so much and he -- well, he started out as a motorcycle -- building motors. He built this monstrous motorcycle that set a land speed record of 136 miles an hour in 1907 and he was the innovator. He was the man who took the concepts and whether or not he actually got his initial inspiration for the Wrights, 'cause they met in 1906, is one of the great controversies of aviation, which I discuss somewhat in the book.

  • 11:17:55

    GOLDSTONEBut to Curtiss, we owe wield landing gear, steering wheels. ailerons. He had the first C plane, the first plane to take off from a ship, land on a ship. So he was a much greater innovator. And while he was suing, he kept innovating.

  • 11:18:13

    PAGEWe're talking to Lawrence Goldstone about his new book, "Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll take your calls. Our phone lines are now open, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an email to Stay with us.

  • 11:20:00

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Lawrence Goldstone, the author of "Birdmen: The Wright Brother, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies." He's the author or co-author of 14 books of fiction or nonfiction. And just before we took the break you were telling us about Glenn Curtiss. He met, fatefully, with the Wright brothers in September 1906. How did these two, these three men come to meet one another?

  • 11:20:31

    GOLDSTONEWell, Curtiss started as a motorcycle racer. And then his -- he was making the most sophisticated light motors, engines, in the nation and possibly the world. And a balloonist, a fascinating man named Captain Tom Baldwin, about whom no fact is irrefutable. And was the P.T. Barnum of his age. He did invent the -- for he -- he invented the parachute, the flexible parachute. And he would get money by jumping out of balloons, holding onto a ring, and come down 5,000 feet -- and he wanted a dollar a foot and he got it.

  • 11:21:09

    GOLDSTONESo Baldwin wanted to make a dirigible, which is a steerable balloon. And he discovered one of Curtiss' motors. And Curtiss' motors worked wonderfully. And Baldwin was in California. He journeyed to Hammondsport. The two got together and started doing balloons, dirigibles. In an air show in 1906, in September of 1906, in Dayton, Baldwin and Curtiss were demonstrating their balloon. And the Wright brothers, remember, had yet to fly publicly, but people knew who they were by now.

  • 11:21:44

    GOLDSTONEAnd one of Baldwin's balloons got loose and the Wright brothers helped him retrieve it. And the three met -- the four of them met, actually, and went to the Wright brothers' shop, and there, according to the Wright brothers, Curtiss asked all sorts of questions and learned their secrets. And according to Curtiss, they had a general discussion about aviation. And none of the specifics of what the Wright brothers were doing was transmitted to him. What actually happened at this meeting is one of the key events in early aviation.

  • 11:22:25

    GOLDSTONEAnd the evidence -- there's evidence both ways because Curtiss must have come away with something, but on the other hand, the idea that the Wright brothers, who refused to demonstrate their plane for anybody, wouldn't even for buyers, was going to show this stranger the secrets of their flight. That's…

  • 11:22:42

    PAGEBut it is true that Glenn Curtiss then starts building airplanes. Did it -- did they work? Was he successful?

  • 11:22:48

    GOLDSTONEWell, he didn't start by himself. He started because Alexander Graham Bell, who also believed, was an early aviation seeker, put together an organization with four or five people of which Curtiss was one. So yes, Curtiss did start building airplanes, but there is absolutely no evidence that anything that he employed came from the Wright brothers, but it's also hard to believe that at least conceptually he didn't walk away with some notion.

  • 11:23:19

    PAGESo what did the Wright brothers think when they saw this guy developing airplanes?

  • 11:23:25

    GOLDSTONEThey were somewhere between furious and livid. They were -- Curtiss went off to France for the first air meet in Rennes. And won the Gordon -- he was the only American and brought one plane, and won the Gordon Bennett Trophy, which was the biggest deal in aviation at the time. And this is after Louis Bleriot had crossed the English Channel. So Aviation in September of 1909 had already matured.

  • 11:23:52

    GOLDSTONEAnd while Curtiss was in Rennes, the Wright brothers initiated a suit. And the papers were delivered to his wife in Hammondsport while he was off flying in Rennes. Because they sent notices -- the idea that anybody would fly without paying them licensing fees was out of bounds.

  • 11:24:11

    PAGELet's go to our callers and let them join our conversation. We have someone calling from Martha's Vineyard. Michael, who has a very personal story to tell. Michael, hi. Thanks for joining us.

  • 11:24:21

    MICHAELGood morning.

  • 11:24:22

    PAGEGood morning.

  • 11:24:23

    MICHAELGood morning. I've been listening and making my lunch. I'm going to work soon at the same time. My late grandfather was an interesting guy who ran errands for Wilbur and Orville Wright in Kitty Hawk, N.C. There's more to my grandfather. He was a really interesting guy.

  • 11:24:42

    PAGEWell, what did he think of about Wilbur and Orville?

  • 11:24:46

    MICHAELHe was a man of few words. So the fact that I know that and it has stayed with me since childhood is about as far as that goes. Grandfather Tuttle also flew an airplane in World War I.

  • 11:25:01

    PAGEOh, interesting, Michael. Thanks so much for your call. You know, World -- I wonder how this story fits in with the use of -- with the advance of World War I.

  • 11:25:11

    GOLDSTONEIt was because of the patent wars -- which is what they were called -- between Curtiss and the Wright brothers, American aviation was doubtless setback. And even though Curtiss continued to build airplanes and innovative airplanes, he had to spend a lot of his time defending his company against the lawsuits. The Wrights stopped innovating altogether. By the time World War I rolled around, an American entry into World War I, there was not an American-made plane that was deemed sufficiently sophisticated to be used in combat.

  • 11:25:46

    GOLDSTONECurtiss built the Jenny, which was used as a trainer. But no American plane was used in combat in World War I because -- so you had people, like Eddie Rickenbacker and this gentlemen's grandfather, flying planes made in England or in France, but not made here.

  • 11:26:06

    PAGEHere's an email from Arlington, Texas, from Mike. He writes, "The Wright brothers grabbed for money and power with their patent on flying, is made all the worse because their airplane design, ground-breaking and innovative as it was, consisted for the most part in dead-end approaches. By World War I, a few years later, the aircraft developed in Europe bore little resemblance to the Wright flyer and subsequent designs. Those early aircraft and those of Glenn Curtiss look like what we might easily recognize as an airplane, even today, 100 years later." Do you agree with Mike?

  • 11:26:36

    GOLDSTONEAbout the Wright brothers, absolutely. You know, wing warping, if you think about it, it -- to bend a wing you have to have -- they were building them with wood frames and fabric surfaces. You can't do this with a metal wing. So right away that's a dead-end technology. And yes, the Wright brothers -- it was a brilliant first step. And it's really important not to underestimate just how amazing it was for this man, in Dayton, Ohio, uneducated to find this out. But afterwards, it went nowhere.

  • 11:27:13

    PAGESo when the Wright brothers first tried to kind of hide their light under a bushel because they were trying to get the patent, but at the time they achieved fame how were they viewed in America?

  • 11:27:26

    GOLDSTONEThey were not -- for a long time, they weren't at all. In fact, one thing, there's a video up that said, "Oh, on December 17, 1903, the wires clattered with the news of the great achievement." There was not a single newspaper in the world that reported the Wright brothers' flight. The first newspaper to report it was a reporter who hadn't been there, who had a propeller on the front and a propeller on the bottom, and they had them flying a half a mile.

  • 11:27:55

    GOLDSTONEThe New York Times, as of three months later, still dealt with Samuel Langley, Samuel Pierpont Langley, who had been a spectacular failure, as the only man really trying to achieve flight. So they were dealt with not in -- and, oh, and the great -- the other great thing was by 1906 a Brazilian coffee heir, named Alberto Santos-Dumont, flew this glorified box kite and he kind of bounced along for 200 yards in the (unintelligible).

  • 11:28:22

    GOLDSTONEAnd Brazilian children to this day are taught that Santos-Dumont was the first man to fly. And the French were calling the Wrights, bluffers, because they were not -- because they were just fakes. And then in 1908 when Wilbur did fly, it was so amazing because he still had the best airplane, draw-dropping gasps and they became absolutely the toast of Europe and when they returned home, the toast of America.

  • 11:28:48

    PAGEHere's an email from Kevin, who writes us from Hagerstown, Md. He writes, "I have heard that the -- please address the deed of gift of the Wright Flyer to the nation. I've heard that the terms revoked the gift if any scholarship is undertaken to determine if there was successful, heavier-than-air flight prior to the Wrights' success at Kitty Hawk. I am thinking of contemporaneous news reports of flights by Gustave Whitehead." Who's Gustave Whitehead?

  • 11:29:14

    GOLDSTONEOh, yes. Well, Gustave Whitehead was Gustave Weisskopf and he was a German motor builder. And yes, he may well have flown in 1901, before the Wright brothers, in Connecticut, which is where I used to live. They have now anointed him the first in flight and have a Gustave Whitehead Day. There was -- he built a machine that may or may not -- it was reported in one Bridgeport paper, but only in one Bridgeport paper.

  • 11:29:43

    GOLDSTONEThere were supposedly eye witnesses. Some of them maintained that he had flown, some later said no he hadn't. But it is -- there is simply no way to know. But there's no definitive evidence and Whitehead didn't really pursue it in a way -- there was no -- he didn't go out after that and fly before a gaggle of reporters or take it to Washington. So it is possible. Now, at the Smithsonian, where they have -- defend any claim that the Wrights, not only were not the first to fly, but were the best -- and all sorts of other things -- they will debunk Whitehead.

  • 11:30:24

    GOLDSTONEIt's -- there's simply no way to know, but reading -- Whitehead's a fascinating character and kept building engines until he died in 1927. So he's definitely worth reading up on.

  • 11:30:36

    PAGEIs it true, as Kevin writes, that the deed of gift of the Wright Flyer had terms that said it got revoked if the Smithsonian raised questions about whether somebody else was earlier?

  • 11:30:48

    GOLDSTONEWell, yeah, that is a great story. There -- Orville Wright -- Wilbur died in 1912. And Orville versus the Smithsonian because Samuel Pierpont Langley, who I talked about before, was the head of the Smithsonian. And he flew and unmanned glider, which actually it circled -- it couldn't be controlled -- in, I think, 1896. And then built a manned version, which tried twice in 1903. And it was launched from a houseboat on the Potomac. And it actually stayed in the air at least, oh, I know, 18, 20 inches before it fell and they had to fish the -- they had to fish the pilot out both times.

  • 11:31:32

    GOLDSTONEAnd Langley had gotten $50,000 from the government to build this airplane. So you fast forward a little and the Smithsonian, after Langley's death, someone else -- the person who was put in charge was a Langley protege, and insisted -- well, Glenn Curtiss then retrieved the Langley No. 6, and supposedly refurbished it and then flew successfully on Lake Keuka -- I think that's pronounced -- up in -- and so the Smithsonian anoints him as he is -- Langley is now the first in flight.

  • 11:32:07

    GOLDSTONEAnd Orville was livid. And he gave the Wright Flyer, which is now at the Smithsonian, but he gave it to the London Science Museum. Where it resided until after World War II. And was only returned when the Smithsonian agreed that Orville and Wilbur Wright would be the first in flight, the best in the flight and that is how it remains to this day.

  • 11:32:32

    PAGESo is the Smithsonian refusing to follow where this scholarship might lead them?

  • 11:32:38

    GOLDSTONEI don't, you know, I don't -- I haven't talked to them. I can tell you that my book is not in the Smithsonian gift shop, but they do seem -- they are -- you know, again, it's important because I don't want to fall into the same trap. We're not demonizing the Wright brothers here, but they seem to be very, very focused on the Wrights.

  • 11:33:03

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. We'd love to hear from the Smithsonian, if they're listening and would like to weigh in on this discussion. But first let's go to Indianapolis and talk to Bart. Bart, thanks for holding on.

  • 11:33:18

    BARTYes, thank you. I really enjoy listening to the show. I have a question for Lawrence. So I'd like to preface this by saying that I am a big Wright brothers fan. So I'm obviously biased. And the reason I am -- so my question is, you've mentioned that you feel like Glenn Curtiss, you know, has been perhaps a larger innovator than the Wright brothers. But in my opinion, even though, you know, their inventions might have been quickly obsoleted, such as the wing warping that had really not practical use later on.

  • 11:33:52

    BARTSome of the underlying inventions, such as lightweight engine, wheel tunnel, development coefficient of the lift, you know, things like a propeller, they were really the first one to develop a practical propeller. It really gave everybody that came in their footsteps a fighting chance. Without their, maybe, mundane and kind of those inventions that you don't really think about, nobody else would have really don't anything.

  • 11:34:19

    PAGEAll right. Bart, thanks so much for your call.

  • 11:34:23

    GOLDSTONEThat is perfectly correct. Everything you said, with the exception of lightweight engines. Their motors were actually second rate. But in terms of the propeller, in terms of the wing warping -- it's a question of how you view it. Absolutely it is a certainty that without the Wright brothers, aviation could not have moved forward as it did. It is simply a question of what you value. But it is also true that you can't stop. The process of innovation must continue.

  • 11:34:54

    GOLDSTONEAnd we look now -- the people who invented ENIAC, which was the computer back in the pre-atomic bomb days, created this amazing system with vacuum tubes that took city blocks. But do we not value a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates for the advances they made simply because the other people did the first prototype.

  • 11:35:17

    PAGEYeah, Bart, thanks for your call. Let's go to Randy, calling us from Elkhart, Ind. Randy, you're on the air.

  • 11:35:24

    RANDY (CALLER0Hi. Excuse me. Orville was the first to write about bicycles and motorcycles that they -- you turn them counterintuitively. Then if you pull on the right handle bar, you'll go left. If you pull on the left handlebar, you'll go right. That's because you steer the front wheel out from underneath you and the bicycle or motorcycle leans in the opposite direction.

  • 11:35:55

    PAGEOh, Randy, interesting.

  • 11:35:56

    GOLDSTONEYes. Langley's great mistake was there were two inventions that kind of inspired the airplane or helped the airplane along. One was the automobile. And the other was the bicycle. Now, you steer an automobile, you stay flat on the ground. And that's what Langley tried to do. And you can steer that way, but they're really slow wide turns, to steer a bicycle or a motorcycle, you lean. And the great -- the inherent instability of the bicycle was the -- gave inspiration to Wilbur and to Orville.

  • 11:36:33

    GOLDSTONEWilbur actually came up with almost all of the major, the major inventions. And it is that inherent instability that creates the ability to control an airplane in the sky. And that is counterintuitive, and Wilbur got it, and no one else had.

  • 11:36:49

    PAGEWe're talking to Larry Goldstone about his new book, "Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, And the Battle to Control the Skies." We've got a photo slideshow on our website,, that shows some of these early aviators who were such remarkable innovators and in some cases such remarkable characters. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation. We'll take your calls and questions. Stay with us.

  • 11:39:58

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page, of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Larry Goldstone. We're talking about his new book, "Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies." Here's a comment from Steve posted on our website. He says, "Talk about the relationship and influence of Octave Chanute."

  • 11:40:18

    GOLDSTONEOctave Chanute was a fascinating man, was a self-taught engineer, built bridges that were thought to be impossible. And he was fascinated with aviation and did not -- he did some experimentation on his own but mostly he was a man who everyone came to and everyone corresponded with and got what was going on around the world. He was a clearing house of information.

  • 11:40:44

    GOLDSTONEWhat's interesting about Chanute and a couple of other people working at the same time is that they were very similar to the open source people who do Firefox and Lennox. They were -- they thought in terms of the progress. They thought in terms of the invention. And by the way, the Wright Brothers, when they first started, said they felt the same way. It was only after they had the invention that they decided to get the patent and try to get a monopoly from it.

  • 11:41:10

    GOLDSTONESo Chanute is a fascinating -- he was an older man. He was retired as an engineer but he was the quintessential catalyst. He was a man who probably did not participate himself, but without him progress would've been much slower, including by Wilbur and Orville.

  • 11:41:28

    PAGEDo you see real comparisons to the internet pioneers of today? I mean, do you see people who seem to be filling the Wilbur and Orville role and others who are more like Glenn Curtiss? Are there lessons from their experience with what we've seen with the rapid development of the internet today?

  • 11:41:49

    GOLDSTONEWell, I don't think it's a great secret that Bill Gates wanted to be rich and Steve Jobs too. I mean, the answer is yes. I think in any -- in the process of any -- of innovation of any technology you have people, who today we would call hackers and back then are just pioneers, working on their own, aren't thinking in terms of business, aren't thinking in terms of profit. And then you have people who see what they're doing as a business.

  • 11:42:18

    GOLDSTONEWhen Wilbur first started, he was just interested I the science. But the business was never far out of his mind. And when he got to business, it was a certain kind of business. So, yes, I think you have these people populating probably back in the days of printed books. After Gutenberg, you had the same dichotomy of people approaching the problem.

  • 11:42:39

    PAGEBut maybe the lesson is the fertility of trying to keep control of something that is rapidly evolving and changing and innovating.

  • 11:42:46

    PAGEWell, I certainly think so. There were two great patent suits at the time, the Wrights suing Glenn Curtiss and Henry Selden, who was a patent holder of the automobile, suing Henry Ford. Curtiss lost and his company thrived, as I said, and the Wright Brothers Company failed. Ford lost, at least initially and the Selden patent people, they collapsed and Ford of course became the most successful automaker in history.

  • 11:43:13

    GOLDSTONESo I think that if you look at, like, Apple and Samsung and all of these patent wars, I think it's a real red flag about companies who think more in terms of litigation than of innovation.

  • 11:43:29

    PAGEAnd maybe there's a lesson there about not trying to control things that can't be controlled.

  • 11:43:33

    GOLDSTONEYeah, innovation, the inexorable progression of knowledge. I mean, we are going -- it is going to move forward whether or not you try to stop it. And the idea that, well, you can innovate while you're -- you can innovate while you're litigating, yeah, that's true but it's -- the tendency is against it.

  • 11:43:51

    PAGEHere's an email from Ann. She write, "Have the right descendants profited from the brothers' patents and accumulated wealth?"

  • 11:44:01

    GOLDSTONEI actually don't know the answer, but I don't think so because the Wright Company -- there was some -- what happened was Orville got out of the business and then he bought the company back. And, you know, after Orville was out of the business, well, was still alive but after Curtiss died the Wright Company and Curtiss got together. And that's Curtiss Wright today.

  • 11:44:24

    GOLDSTONEWhen you look at Curtiss Wright, that is Glenn Curtiss, and if Wilbur Wright is sentient anywhere, he must be -- he is utterly appalled that these arch rivals got together. So there was some money and I'm sure the Wright family got it, but it wasn't the kind of riches that Orville and Wilbur had imagined.

  • 11:44:43

    PAGEThey didn't accumulate the kind of wealth that the great families of -- that had railroads and banks.

  • 11:44:49

    GOLDSTONENo, I don't think so.

  • 11:44:50

    PAGEYou talked about -- earlier about these airplane exhibitions where these fliers would show up and display their skills. Obviously huge audiences, half a million people you said in Chicago. Tell us about those exhibitions.

  • 11:45:06

    GOLDSTONEThey were remarkable because you are talking about if you date serious flying from 1907 -- forget about Santos-Dumont. I'm sorry Brazil. But the Wrights flew in 1903, but they didn't exhibit. In 1907 people started just -- not the Wrights -- started putting crude airplanes in the sky. In 1909 was the air show at Rheims that Glenn Curtiss won the Gordon Bennett trophy which prompted the Wright suit.

  • 11:45:36

    GOLDSTONEBy 1910, they were having air shows with hundreds of thousands of people and everyone vying to do something more spectacular than the other. And of course I mentioned Lincoln Beachey earlier, people emulated -- you had to do -- people called it doing a Beachey. And Beachey's famous trick was the dip of death where he'd go to 5,000', go straight down, take his hands off the controls and then pull the airplane out just before it hit the ground. And a dozen other fliers tried to do it and died. So death was a constant companion in these air shows.

  • 11:46:16

    PAGEAnd, in fact, that is how Lincoln Beachey finally died.

  • 11:46:18

    GOLDSTONEWell, yes and no. He died doing a dip of death but it was because he was trying it for the first time, at San Francisco by the way -- Lefty went back. Lefty Gomez went back. I didn't say this in the opening. He went and he saw Beachey in February. Then he went back in march and was there the day Beachey died. Beachey designed his own plane and it was made of aluminum and it was a monoplane. And he tried the dip of death the first time ever in an aluminum monoplane. And the metallurgy of aluminum was not -- it was the miracle metal at the time -- wasn't really understood. And the wings folded and collapsed.

  • 11:46:54

    GOLDSTONEBeachey crashed in into San Francisco Bay, sunk in 40' of water. And they sent in divers. And they -- when they recovered his body he hadn't died in the crash. He'd only broken his leg. He had clawed to try and free himself from all the wires. And the greatest aviator in American history died of drowning.

  • 11:47:14

    PAGEAmazing. You mentioned earlier in this hour, Harriet Quimby.

  • 11:47:17


  • 11:47:18

    PAGEWho was she?

  • 11:47:18

    GOLDSTONEHarriet Quimby was an amazing woman. She had been born in Michigan, moved to San Francisco, became an actress and became very close friends with a woman named Linda Arvidson. And they tried to put together shows and it didn't really work. And Quimby -- Harriet became a journalist of great renown. And Linda Arvidson met an actor named Lawrence Griffith. And they went off and got married. But she hated Lawrence, Linda Arvidson did, so she made him use his first two initials which were DW.

  • 11:47:52

    GOLDSTONEAnd so DW Griffith and Linda Arvidson relocate to New York. Harriet Quimby comes back to New York, does screenplays for Griffith, acts in some of his shorts and then works for Leslie's Weekly Magazine, which was very popular at the time and persuades the boss to pay for her flying lessons. She flies, becomes the first woman to get an air license -- a pilot's license in America. Subsequently becomes the first woman -- and you were talking about someone who was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world.

  • 11:48:24

    GOLDSTONESo she is a journalist, she is a beauty, she is an actress, first woman to fly across the English Channel, had a purple flying suit that turned into a skirt. She had this amazing -- you can see all this on the internet. And she subsequently died at an air show.

  • 11:48:39

    PAGEAmazing. You know, we've asked the -- we invited the Smithsonian to join this conversation. We've now gotten an email from Tom Crouch. He's senior aeronautics curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. And he writes, "The notion that the Wright patent suits retarded the growth of American aviation is quite wrong. In fact, the lack of U.S. government investment in aeronautics compared to that of the European nations was the real explanation. This is an incredibly important question and should not be misrepresented." What do you think about what Mr. Crouch is saying?

  • 11:49:10

    GOLDSTONEHe is completely right that the American government did not invest. But other governments did but the great advances in Europe were not made because people were investing. These were not government contracts. People like Blurio (sp?) and Ari Farman (sp?) were innovating on their own. And I think the notion that this intense patent suit and all -- and one group of people trying to put another person out of business did not retard the advance of American aviation is just wrong.

  • 11:49:45

    GOLDSTONEI mean, I believe Dr. Crouch is right, yes, the lack of government funding was crucial but to pretend that the Wright Brothers' obsessive pursuit which, by the way, got Wilbur completely out of the workshop, and he spent -- he died pursuing this patent case. And Orville, in an interview in the New York Times, the year after -- of Wilbur's death, blamed Curtiss and the patent suits for killing his brother.

  • 11:50:16

    PAGETom Crouch, thank you so much for joining our conversation this hour. Let's go to Brian calling us from Frankfort, Ky. Brian, you're on the air.

  • 11:50:25

    BRIANHello. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. In fact, I spent a good number of my teenage years riding my bicycle up to the Wright Brothers Memorial that overlooks Huffman Prairie. And I was wondering if you could talk about the fact -- or I haven't heard a whole lot about the fact that the Wrights were really the ones to develop the ability to control an airplane. And that alone should make them first in flight with their work primarily at Huffman Prairie.

  • 11:50:51

    PAGEAll right. Brian, thanks for your call.

  • 11:50:53

    GOLDSTONEAbsolutely. They were the -- no one is denying -- well, in Connecticut they are, but no one is denying that the Wrights were first in flight. And no one denies that they created the means to control an airplane. Now even if you believe Whitehead was the first in flight, he really couldn't -- that was a straight line plane. He really -- the only way he could control it was by kind of shifting his weight, which is what Otto Lilienthal did with his wings.

  • 11:51:18

    GOLDSTONESo the Wright Brothers definitely, irrefutably created the first controlled aircraft. And they went back from Kitty Hawk and went to Huffman Prairie to refine their invention. But they were not looking to refine it to make it more technologically sophisticated. They were looking to refine it, to have something that they could sell while their patent application was pending.

  • 11:51:41

    PAGENow here's an email that we've gotten from Matthew who says, "The Wrights wanted to sell the plane to the military. They demonstrated it on -- at Fort Meyer in D.C.. Where on the post was that flight and can you tell us about it?" He thinks perhaps the pilot died.

  • 11:51:59

    GOLDSTONENo. The first flighty in 1908 -- now, by the way, the Wrights had tried to sell it to the American military before and the American military wouldn't buy it because the Wrights refused to demonstrate it. They also tried to sell it to the German military. They tried to sell it to the English military and they tried to sell it to the French military. But nobody would seem to buy an airplane that they had not seen fly.

  • 11:52:20

    PAGEAnd this was not at a time when we were at war with these other (unintelligible) ...

  • 11:52:22

    GOLDSTONENo, no, no. This is in 1907. The Wrights were -- liked Germany the best. Finally the Wrights had no choice but to demonstrate it. And in 1908, Orville piloted the first demonstration flight. And there was an Army Lieutenant named Thomas Selfridge sitting next to him. And the plane crashed and Selfridge died. The first fatality from -- the first ever fatality. And Orville was horribly injured and was in pain -- lived until 1947 and was in pain for the rest of his life.

  • 11:53:02

    GOLDSTONEInterestingly, in that flight Wilbur, who was in Europe, wrote back to his sister and said -- basically blamed Orville. Said, if I was there it wouldn't have happened. And Orville was crushed. And Kathryn, the sister, said, you know, that's not right.

  • 11:53:19

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've been taking your calls. Let's talk to Ray. He's calling us from St. Louis. Hi, Ray.

  • 11:53:27

    RAYHow you doing? I was on the Curtiss Museum about 40 years ago and we flew a piece of the Wright Brothers flyer onboard space shuttle for McDonald Douglas at that time. And remember that Curtiss is the father of naval aviation. Go down to Pensacola and take a look at the museum down there. A fellow named Tony Dougherty was a inspiration to get this museum going. I went there on vacation, got lost, asked for -- where is Hammond's Park and where the heck am I? And they sent me to a schoolhouse. And upstairs was a flyer hanging from the roof. I couldn't believe it.

  • 11:54:01

    RAYAnd that's the way I found the plane. Plus the guy was sleeping up there. He was the curator of the museum. And I fell in love with the place. I spent, I guess, nine years becoming a fellow with the Smithsonian. And Mr. Crouch is absolutely right. Fierce competition was not the word for -- they were cutthroats. And they absolutely would not let anybody see anything because they knew that they would steal it because there was nobody else that needed it. And the people that were looking were trying to do the same thing that they were doing.

  • 11:54:29

    PAGEHow interesting, Ray. Thanks so much for your call.

  • 11:54:31

    GOLDSTONECurtiss was definitely the founder -- Curtiss first took off, had figured out a way for a plane -- they put a cruiser -- they put a flat -- kind of a flat bed on a cruiser and he had a flyer take off, and then figured out how to get someone to land on a ship. And the only way to stop the plane -- and this was Curtiss' -- another great innovation -- put a little hook on the bottom of the plane and stretched a series of sandbags along the sides of the landing strip with ropes going across it so the plane would hook these ropes, one after another, after another, after another and stop before they crashed into wherever the admiral and everybody was watching them.

  • 11:55:11

    PAGELike a tail hook landing on an aircraft carrier today.

  • 11:55:12

    GOLDSTONEYes, yes.

  • 11:55:13

    PAGESo did -- these three men that you write about, the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtis, did they die happy, reveling in the great achievements they made? Tell us about their deaths.

  • 11:55:22

    GOLDSTONEOh, Wilbur died -- in the book I said, all these other aviators, the ones who died in the crashes, at last they died doing something they loved. Wilbur died doing something he hated. There was just no question that Wilbur died because he was so obsessed with beating Curtiss in the suit. Orville was embittered and died in 1947. And, I mean, there's no way of knowing but he did not seem like a particularly happy man. Curtiss went to Florida, founded the City of Opa-locka, bought up a bunch of real estate and seems to have been a relatively happy man.

  • 11:55:58

    PAGESo just very briefly, we're almost out of time, how do you go about picking your topics for these very different books you've done?

  • 11:56:04

    GOLDSTONEWell, I try to find things where the historical parallels are acute. I did a book on the early -- on the Supreme Court and the civil rights decisions in the wake of the Civil War because I thought it was very -- was a remarkable parallel to the political nature of the court that people are talking about now in the book. And in the book I said, constitutional law is merely politics, made incomprehensible to the common man. And nobody really like that. But people are talking about it more now.

  • 11:56:32

    PAGELarry Goldstone, thanks so much for joining us this hour.

  • 11:56:34

    GOLDSTONEThank you so much, Susan.

  • 11:56:35

    PAGEYour new book is called "Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies." I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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