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The Dawn of Flight

Trouble for the Wright Brothers
The Wright design quickly became obsolete.
The Wright design quickly became obsolete.
Wright State University Archives

As brilliant as the Wright brothers were as engineers, scientists, and pilots, they were hopelessly naive when it came to business and law. The Wrights patented their control system and presumed that those who used their patented system in other aircraft designs would pay a reasonable royalty. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Wrights became embroiled in legal bat­tles that s­apped their collective strength and led to stagnation in their design process. In the meantime, hundreds of others took their basic ideas and, in many instances, improved upon them. The ten-year lead they had possessed in 1903 had dwindled to perhaps three or four years by 1908 and had disappeared entirely by 1912, the year of Wilbur's death. By that time, the basic Wright design to which they had clung was not only obsolete, but it had also gained a reputation as a pilot killer because of a long string of fatal accidents. The Wrights as inventors were passé, but all of Europe and some of America was ablaze with competitors, who daily coaxed their craft to new records in height, speed, altitude, and distance. New manufacturers, such as Glenn Curtiss, Louis Blériot, A. V. Roe, and many more, appeared with new designs and new approaches.

The Wrights had set the century of flight on fire in 1903, altering the course of world history. Orville would live until 1948: He had the opportunity to witness the introduction of jet aircraft, supersonic flight, and huge passenger planes. On a more personal level, he, unlike Wilbur, would live to see their true achievement--an invention that changed the course of history--recognized all over the world. For more about the history of flight check out World War I Flight.