Simanaitis Says

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ON DECEMBER 17, 1903, on the windy sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the world’s first pilot-controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight.


The Wrights: Orville, left, 1871-1948; Wilbur, right, 1867-1912.

Others before had piloted lighter-than-air designs, and even heavier-than-air craft, to some extent, but not very far and with only a modicum of control.

For example, Samuel Pierpoint Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, had flown models of his “aerodromes.” However, trials of a full-size version catapulted into the Potomac. This, curiously enough, was on December 8, 1903.


The Langley aircraft crashes into the Potomac; December 8, 1903.

The Wrights continued their development. Within a couple of years, it’s said local farmers got used to the Wrights’ flights over Huffman Prairie, near their Dayton, Ohio, home.


The Wright Flyer at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, Ohio; circa 1905.

Seemingly nobody else got excited either. In 1905, the Wrights offered the Flyer to the U.S. War Department, then to the British military. Each time, negotiations bogged down.

The Wrights’ patent on aeronautical control was issued in 1906.

A year later, another ex-bicycle maker got involved with aeroplanes: Glenn Curtiss (see His June Bug won recognition by Scientific American magazine two years in a row, 1908 and 1909.


The June Bug of Glenn Curtiss featured ailerons, as opposed to Wright wing-warping.

Orville Wright offered Curtiss a licensing agreement, but Curtiss claimed his crafts’ control by ailerons was inherently different from the Wrights’ patented wing-warping. The Wrights brought suit.

Then Curtiss’ Reims Racer trounced the opposition—including several Wright proponents—at the world’s first air meet, La Grande Semaine de l’Aviation de la Champagne, held near Reims, France, August 1909.


Curtiss and his Reims Racer won $7600 (perhaps equivalent to $200,000 today) at the world’s first air meet, 1909.

Early in 1910, a preliminary injunction ruled against Curtiss, the judge noting that the Wrights’ claims “are entitled to a broad and liberal construction.”

And who was this jurist? None other than Judge John R. Hazel, of Selden case fame (and yesterday’s mini-essay,

Then came the first air meet in the U.S., held in January, 1910, on the Dominguez property south of Los Angeles (not far from today’s LAX).


Wright injunctions complicated the first air meet held in the U.S., January 1910.

French aviator Louis Paulan and other aviators were served with one Wright injunction when they arrived in New York, and another as they traveled west. When a court postponed these orders until after the meet, the Wrights filed another suit demanding Paulan’s Dominguez profits plus threefold damages.

The court cases dragged on, each new aviation development prompting other continuances, yet more testimony and further acrimony.

In May 1912, Wilbur Wright succumbed to typhoid fever. The family blamed legal hassles—and specifically Glenn Curtiss—for his death.

In the winter of 1913, Judge Hazel gave another broad view of the patent, one that ruled even Curtiss ailerons as infringement.

Orville then demanded a 20-percent royalty per aircraft from any manufacturer, retroactive to their earliest efforts. He stated he would adopt a “policy of leniency”—for all but Curtiss.

It’s not clear why Henry Ford got involved, but at this time his lawyer W. Benton Crisp helped obtain yet another stay of Judge Hazel’s verdict.

Then matters grew Byzantine: In 1914, the Smithsonian Institution offered Glenn Curtiss the original Langely machine (the one taking the Potomac dip), thus giving him opportunity to assess its viability as prior art to the Wrights’ Flyer.


Glenn Curtiss flew the Langley craft, albeit with engineering enhancements.

Curtiss got the Langley to fly. However—and eerily parallel to the patent-enhanced Selden—he made refinements to the original design.

The Smithsonian didn’t help matters. The Langley was returned, spiffed up and displayed with a placard reading, in part, “The first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.”

Orville Wright was not amused. Still smarting years later, he sent the original Wright aircraft out of the country. From 1928 until 1948, it resided in the Science Museum, London.


The original Wright Kitty Hawk, as it was then known, left the British Museum in 1948 after a 20-year residence there.

The Wright/Curtiss fight was never completely resolved, though W. Benton Crisp was instrumental in setting up cross-licensing. And, in 1929, the two companies merged to form Curtiss-Wright Corp.

Glenn Curtiss died in 1930; Orville Wright, in 1948.


This neat illustration is by Jon Dahlstrom. It accompanied an article on this topic in Road & Track, December 2003.

Among automobile enthusiasts, the Selden case faded into obscurity. But, to this day, aviation enthusiasts are known to align themselves on one side or the other of this second affair. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2012


  1. oldmaven
    December 13, 2012

    Curtiss didn’t just make bicycles. He made motorcycles, too, and was a well-known racer. Speedboats, too, as I recall. There’s a Glenn Curtiss museum in Hammondsport, NY, less than an hour from Watkins Glen.

    • dsab
      December 14, 2017

      You are correct oldmaven.

  2. Jerry Jelincic
    December 2, 2013

    Curtiss received U.S. Pilot’s license #1 from the Aero Club of America, because the first batch of licenses were issued in alphabetical order; Orville Wright received license #5.

    There is also a Curtiss Mansion in Miami Springs, FL

  3. Roy Mize
    January 31, 2015

    You should write about Montgomery. Much more credible than Whitehead. Even the most ardent Wright supporters are beginning to admit that Dr. J.J. Montgomery might have been the first to fly with control – but without an engine – as early as the late 1880s..

  4. Pingback: Rochester's Fun Facts: Oldest, Original, Only, and More! | Day Trips Around Rochester

  5. John H
    November 11, 2022

    “It’s not clear why Henry Ford got involved…”
    Perhaps because he had sympathy for Curtiss after Ford’s experience fighting the Selden patent?

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