Sunday, September 15, 2002
As we approach the 100th anniversary of Orville Wright's solo flight near Kitty Hawk, N.C., we can expect to be overloaded with accounts of the noble brothers.
They're part of American lore, of course, enterprising bicycle repairmen from Dayton, Ohio, who finally broke our earthly bonds with powered flight.
But Glenn Curtiss is forgotten. Although he was the first man to fly in public ï¿½ the Wrights didn't invite observers that December day in 1903 ï¿½ he's unknown to all but true aviation buffs.
His list of inventions stretches into the hundreds and his "Jenny" bi-plane was a mainstay of the Allies in World War I and the favorite of barnstormers in the 1920s.
Seth Shulman wisely uses the eve of the Wright Centennial to resurrect Curtiss' name in "Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane."
Orville and Wilbur may be remembered as plucky inventors. But they're the villains of this tale, battling with Curtiss over the commercial development of aviation, fighting over patents and trying to keep the aeroplane ï¿½ as it was known in the early days ï¿½ under their strict control.
It begins with the brothers' obsessive secrecy, not even publicly demonstrating their airplane for nearly five years, although stories had leaked out much earlier.
It's ironic that, as Shulman recounts, "the brothers painted their early Wright Flyer gray so it would be harder for potential competitors ï¿½ or 'spies' ï¿½ to photograph."
Meanwhile, Curtiss had his early planes brightly painted, with one "coated with yellow varnish expressly to help it show up more clearly for spectators and photographers alike."
It may be a lesson in public relations that the secretive Wrights are remembered even by schoolchildren, while the more open Curtiss isn't. That comes despite the fact that Curtiss quickly began making better aircraft than his chief competitors.
"The Wrights loathe his success," he writes. "The Wrights want not just to fight Curtiss, but to punish and destroy him. It becomes an obsession."