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Business And The Wright Brothers

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History is not especially kind to the Wright brothers where the airplane business is concerned. It certainly seems they had little to crow about. Their aircraft company did not prosper; it struggled along for six hard years until it was finally sold. During that time, it lost it's technological lead and Wright airplanes became hopelessly obsolete. The brothers alienated much of the aviation community with their patent law suits. Then, when they won those suits, Orville alienated the investors in the Wright Company by refusing to take advantage of their legal position. Consequently, many historians judge Wilbur and Orville Wright to be as inept in business as they were brilliant in engineering.

But this is simply not true. It's akin to "Monday-morning quarterbacking." It's very easy to look back and make pronouncements about what action might have saved the day once the game is played out. But things look very different when you're on the playing field, the clock is running, and you have no idea what fate is going to throw at you next.

Our understanding of their business problems is colored by a century of aviation history. Today the aerospace industry is the largest sector of the world economy. Much of our culture revolves around flight; we cannot imagine functioning without airplanes. We forget that it wasn't that way when the Wright brothers started making flying machines. In 1909, there was no market for airplanes and most of the world could do very nicely without those noisy contraptions, thank you very much.

No one was more surprised to find this out than the Wright brothers. But when the world did not beat a path to their door, they did what they had always done -- they put their shoulder to the work at hand. They had invented the airplane; now it was time to help invent the airplane business.


By William Wraga

We left the Wrights in 1909. The U.S. Army trials had been renewed and successfully completed by Orville after his recovery from the tragic crash of the preceding year in which Tom Selfridge had been killed. These trials concluded with the first cross-country flight of 10 miles at an average speed of 43 miles per hour, earning the Wrights a bonus of $5,000 from the Army.

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The assembly room at the Wright Company.

The first U.S. Army flight squadron was formed at College Park, Maryland, and two lieutenants, both from the Corps of Engineers, were assigned for flight instruction. Orville was their instructor. Following this, the Wrights established a flying school in Dayton where they trained many of the soon-to-be-famous fliers of early American aviation. Among these were "Hap" Arnold, who would become a five-star general and commander of the US Army Air Force in World War II; Roy Brown, a Canadian, who would shoot down the "Red Baron" in World War I; and Ed Stinson, founder of the famous Stinson Aircraft Company.

Wilbur had won great honors in Europe, setting endurance and altitude records in England, France, Germany and Italy. Many orders began to flow into Dayton for Wright airplanes from both the US and European governments; a production manufacturing facility was needed. The Wright Company was organized in November 1909, and stock issued in order to raise cash, with the Wrights retaining control.

The next several years showed a slow but steady development of Wright airplanes and engines.

Wheels replaced landing-gear skids; horizontal stabilizers were moved from front to rear; the original 4-cylinder engine was upgraded to 35 HP; a 60 HP V-8 was constructed in 1910. An exhibition team was formed, competing all over the country with a similar Curtiss team and European teams as well. Racing models were built, and air meets conducted at Asbury and Belmont Parks. An altitude record of 9,714 feet was set. This period was marked by many flying accidents and fatalities among both military and civilian pilots. C. S. Rolls, founder of the Rolls-Royce Company was killed in the crash of a French-built Wright Flyer in England.

Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912.

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The Wright Flying School at Simms Station (old Huffman Prairie) shot from the air.

But The Wright Company's airplane and engine designs were reaching a plateau. Aircraft of 1912, 13 and 14 were not markedly different from their earliest models. In the aviation world The Wright Company was losing the momentum established by the spectacular successes at Kitty Hawk and began to flounder.

Other designers, like Curtiss in the US, were producing more advanced, higher performance machines. In Europe, the industrial nations, now engaged in World War I, were developing new aircraft at an accelerated pace.

European designers had unabashedly used the Wrights' patented innovations. Wing-warping, for example, was employed on Bleriot's channel crossing airplane in exactly the fashion defined by the Wrights.

Soon European warplanes would be advanced to the point where no US plane could even come close in any performance parameter.

In order to strengthen the capabilities of his company, in 1915 Orville personally bought up all its stock and sold the company in a merger with two automobile companies, Crane and Simplex, both strong engineering and manufacturing organizations, the latter noted for quality marine engines as well. Simplex operated a large factory in New Brunswick, New Jersey where Wright products would be manufactured.

The Wright Company realized that soon they would no longer be a force in aircraft design but correctly assessed the almost limitless future in store for aviation. This led the Wright Company to concentrate on aero engines.

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A Wright Model AB banking over Simms Station.

There were no exceptional aero engines available anywhere in the world at that time. US engines, mostly Curtiss and Wright designs, were fairly reliable but heavy and underpowered. European models, notably French air-cooled rotaries, Gnome and LeRhone, had reached their maximum practical proportions.

The French government was seeking a new military engine, a state-of-the-art design, and found it in a 140 HP V8 water-cooled called the Hispano-Suiza model A.

The engine had been designed by a brilliant Swiss mechanical engineer, Marc Birkigt, who was also the technical brain behind the Hispano-Suiza automobile. This was a machine of the finest mechanical excellence, a favorite automobile of European royalty. His aero engine was in the same class.

Prototype "Hisso" engines were tested by the French Flying Service and found to be exactly what was needed. The engine was powerful, lightweight, reliable and extremely efficient, performing so well that the French government sought suppliers to manufacture 800 units in 1915. European factories were not capable of handling such a large order.

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Flying at an exhibition in Milwaukee.

The Wright Company, following negotiations with the US and French governments, accepted a licensing arrangement and contract for 450 Hispano-Suiza engines.

Wright had sent a delegation to France to evaluate the Hisso engine. They came home with the conviction that the new engine was the finest available anywhere and was the product that would launch The Wright Company as a world-class aero engine supplier.

The company again sought to bolster its resources and proposed a merger with the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. Curtiss declined; he was busy with his own agenda, supplying aircraft and engines to the US Army and Navy. This merger would occur 14 years later in 1929 when our present Corporation was founded.

A successful merger was concluded in 1916 with the Glenn L. Martin Company of Los Angeles, thus forming the Wright-Martin Aircraft Company. Glenn Luther Martin was another American aviation pioneer who at that time was manufacturing aircraft of his design at about 10 per month. His early machines closely resembled Curtiss' and used Curtiss engines. The Martin factory would be a big plus in manufacturing Wright airframes.

In 1916 then, Wright-Martin consisted of the Martin operation, Crane and Simplex, airports at Mineola, Long Island and Dayton and a division called General Aeronautic Company of America which handled their foreign sales.

Wright-Martin tackled the new engine program, now known as the Wright-Hispano, with enthusiasm but soon found that they did not possess the necessary manufacturing technology and the effort bogged down. At that time, it was practice among many European engine designers, for both airplanes and automobiles that "monobloc" construction be used; engines were designed with cylinder head and block in an integral casting. Cylinder heads were not detachable. This resulted in an intricate aluminum casting that required special manufacturing techniques to produce. Wright-Martin was unable to cast the Hisso engine block nor was any US foundry.

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The completed Navy Wright "Mystery" racer. With full-size upper wing and short lower wing, the configuration is known as a "sesqui-monoplane".
Partially finished airframe of the Navy Wright "Mystery" racer with a Wright Model T-2 V-12 engine installed. Note the two cylindrical radiators for engine cooling and the smaller oil cooler above. The crank handle protruding above the engine is the manual starter. This crank spun up a flywheel which rotated the engine crankshaft when engaged. The machine appears to be tied down for engine testing. This photo dates to 1922 at the Wright Aeronautical plant in Paterson, New Jersey.
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A wrecked Wright Model C in College Park, 1912.

The engine program was strictly "build to print"; no design changes were permitted. Wright-Martin was forced to procure castings from French foundries, self-defeating since capacity in Europe was limited; an embarrassment to the US Government, and the cause of great concern to the French.

A consulting manufacturing organization was hired, the renowned Goethals Company, who took over the management of the Wright-Hispano engine program. They were experts in machine tool selection, processing, factory layout, etc. They solved a myriad of production problems associated with the Hisso engine, especially that of the casting. French foundries were visited, and a dedicated Wright-Martin foundry started from scratch in the US Slowly the casting technology was developed "in-house" until good castings were produced as a matter of routine.

It is interesting that almost 25 years later, at the onset of World War II when the Packard Motor Car Company undertook the manufacture of the Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 aero engine in the US, they encountered a similar problem. Like the Hisso, the Merlin was of monobloc construction. Packard's first task was in redesigning the Merlin with detachable heads, a feature soon incorporated as well by the Rolls-Royce factory in England.

In the first year of production, Wright-Martin produced only about 100 engines. Before the war ended, Wright-Martin delivered more than 10,000 engines in three models, in the process adding so many design improvements that the 1918 models hardly resembled the original designs. The Wright-Hispanos were superior to and more plentiful than those of any other manufacturer. The original engine evolved as the Wright Model I.

It is little known that many of the famous fighter planes of World War I--the French SPAD, the British Bristol Fighter and S.E.-5--were powered by Wright engines built in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

By war's end employment reached 15,000 people; sales were almost $50,000,000 annually. In 1918 most of Wright-Martin's orders were canceled when the war ended. Labor force was reduced to 300 people, and the operation moved from New Brunswick to more modest quarters in Paterson, New Jersey. Now, almost exclusively an engine manufacturer, the union with Martin was dissolved; he went his own way as a successful airplane manufacturer.

In 1919, the company was renamed "The Wright Aeronautical Corporation", the name that survived into our own era.

Wright continued to improve their V-8 engines, extending the design to V-12 models intended especially for racing. The accompanying photos depict a special racing airplane called the "Mystery" racer built by Wright Aeronautical in Paterson to Navy drawings.

 Curtiss-Wright Corporation.





Fall 1909 - The Wright brothers are approached by a representative of several New York financiers wanting to invest in aviation, including J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Within a few weeks they reach an agreement and form the Wright Company with capitalization of $1 million. Wilbur and Orville receive $100,000 and a third of the shares of stock. Suddenly, they are in the airplane production business.

Fall 1909 - The Wright brothers train their first crop of student pilots. In accordance with their Army contract, Wilbur trains the first military pilots at College Park, Maryland - Lieutenants Frank Lahm, Frederick Humphreys, and Benjamin Foulois.

Throughout 1910 - The Wrights win an injunction against the Herring-Curtiss Company, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and exhibition of airplanes while the patent suit is pending. Curtiss files an appeal and keeps flying. Meanwhile, the Wrights file suits against other American manufacturers, importers of airplanes, and foreign pilots doing exhibition flights in America. In France and Germany, the Wright-affiliated companies cross legal swords with European airplane manufacturers that are using Wright technology. The Patent Wars are joined on all fronts, with the Wrights against much of the world’s aviation community. The suits make them many enemies and monopolize their time.

Spring and Summer 1910 - Aware that there is more money to be made in exhibition flying than selling airplanes, the Wright Company decides to field and exhibition team, the "Wright Fliers." They hire Roy Knabenshue to lead it. They also put him in charge of the fledgling Wright Flying School, although Orville trains the first group of pilots, including Walter Brookins, Arch Hoxsey, A.L. Welsh, Frank Coffyn, Ralph Johnstone, and Phil Parmalee - all of whom went on to become well-known pioneer aviators. Because the weather is too cold to fly in Ohio, Orville opens a school in Montgomery, Alabama and began training on March 28. On June 13 through 18, the Wright Fliers make their first appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Summer 1910 - The first order of business for the manufacturing side of the Wright Company was to develop a new model that incorporated the latest aeronautical developments. Airplanes had changed quite a bit since the Wright first designed the Model A in 1907. To improve stability and handling, the Wrights did away with their distinctive front canard and mounted a flexible elevator behind the rudder. With a new 40-horsepower 4-cyclinder engine, Wright airplanes could dispense with the cumbersome launching derrick, so they put wheels on the landing skids. Orville first flew the improved "Model B" in July. This was to be the Wright’s most popular airplane.

October 1910 - The Wrights brought their new Model B to the first international air show to be held in the United States, at Belmont, New York. They also unveiled a single-seat, clipped-wing version they called the Model R - the "R" was for "racer". With a powerful V-8 engine, it could fly in excess of 70 miles per hour and with it, the Wrights hoped to snatch the Gordon Bennet trophy for speed away from Curtiss . It wasn’t to be. Walter Brookins crashed the Model R in a trial flight, and the trophy went to English pilot Claude Graham-White. This marked the end of the Wright’s perceived technological superiority in airplane design.

Summer 1910 to Summer 1911 - The Army and Navy take the first steps to turn the airplane into a weapon. In August, Lieutenant Jacob Fickel fires a rifle from a Curtiss, proving that the recoil from the rifle will not effect the aircraft in flight. Later that same month, James McCurdy uses a wireless transmitter in an aircraft. In November, Eugene Ely takes off from a makeshift platform built aboard the U.S.S. Birmingham, marking the beginning of the aircraft carrier. In January 1911, Lieutenant M. S. Crissy drops live bombs from a Wright biplane. Later that same year, a Nieuport becomes the first airplane equipped with a machine gun. Captain Carlo Piazza flies a Bleriot on a scouting mission for the Italian Army who is fighting the Turks near Tripoli. It is the first use of an aircraft in a war.

Fall 1911 - Although the armies of the world were re-inventing the airplane as a weapon, the Wrights still believed in its use for sport. While Wilbur was in Europe, checking the French and German factories, Orville made a new glider, his first in almost a decade, and incorporated all the aerodynamic knowledge they had gleaned in that time. With his brother Lorin and English pilot Alec Ogilvie, they traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to test a glider and an autopilot system they had been working on since 1906. Once in Kitty Hawk, Orville decided not to try the automatic pilot because of all the reporters snooping around, but he did fly the glider, making the world’s first true soaring flights. On October 24, he remained airborne in the glider for 9 minutes and 45 seconds, a soaring record that stood for ten years.

Fall and Winter 1911 - While Orville was setting a soaring record at Kitty Hawk, a student of his was setting an endurance record of a different sort. Taking off from Sheepshead Bay on September 17, Cal Rodgers flew his Wright Model EX, dubbed the Vin Fiz, westward in a race to be the first to cross the continent in an airplane. If he arrived at the Pacific Coast in less than 30 days, he would win a $50,000 purse the publisher William Randolph Hearst put up. Rodgers did not capture the purse, but his did make it to Long Beach, California 84 days later after five major crashes and countless minor mishaps. Still he was the first person to cross America - or any continent - in an airplane.

Winter 1911 to Spring 1912 - The Wright Company in particular and American airplane companies in general continue to lose their technological edge to the Europeans. This is due in part to the U.S. Government’s failure to support the fledgling airplane industry. While the governments of England, France, and Germany are buying hundreds of airplanes for their armed forces and supporting aviation research, the United States is spending roughly the same amount of money as Bulgaria. At the Wright Company, this crisis is compounded by the fact that the research and development team - Wilbur and Orville - is preoccupied with business matters. Wilbur runs himself ragged over the patent suits and, in his weakened condition, contracts typhoid. He dies on May 30, 1912.

Summer 1912 to Spring 1913 - Orville and Katharine take up the gauntlet for Wilbur, pursuing the patent fights in Germany, France, and the United States. The decisions handed down in Europe are disappointing. In Germany, the courts rule that although the Wrights did indeed invent the basic system of aerodynamic control used in all practical aircraft, they were entitled to only partial protection. Supposedly, much of their work had been explained in Wilbur’s speeches and writings before the German patent was issued, and this "prior disclosure" negated their claim. In France, the ruling is more favorable for the Wrights, but the defendants filed a motion to have a panel of experts study "prior art" – inventors who may have experimented with parts of the Wright control system before they put it all together. The Wrights lawyers made it clear that the defendants would be able to stall like this until the French patents ran out. Back in Dayton, the Wright family faces a disaster of another sort. The city suffers a devastating flood, and many of the contents of the Wright’s home and bicycle shop are destroyed. Fortunately, the Wrights early aeronautical photographs and the stored parts of the 1903 Flyer survive with only minor damage.

Spring 1913 to Winter 1914 – Patent suits and floods weren’t the Wright Company’s only problems. A rash of fatal accidents plagued the new Wright Model C, a more powerful variant of the popular Model B, and sales plummeted. Orville was convinced the problem lay in the inexperience of the pilots and perfected an "automatic stabilizer" – the first primitive autopilot – to prevent inadvertent stalls and dives. After a convincing demonstration before the Aero Club of America, Orville was awarded the Collier Trophy for the invention. It was a triumph for his deceased brother Wilbur, too. The two of them had worked on the stabilizer off and on as early as 1905. The fall of 1913 brought the conclusion of another long term project – the Wright Company successfully tested a flying boat, the Wright Model G. Wilbur and Orville had experimented with water launches and landings since 1907 and had flown both the Model B and Model C with pontoons. But Curtiss beat the Wright Company off the water with the first true flying boat in 1912 and captured the lion’s share of the United States Navy’s business. To catch up, Orville hired a promising young engineer, Grover Loening, to design and build a competitive aeroboat. The turn of the year brought more good news. On January 13, 1914 the United States Court of Appeals upheld the Wright brothers 1906 patent and judged it to be the "grandfather" patent of the airplane.

Throughout 1914 and 1915 – The investors in the Wright Company push Orville to establish a "patent monopoly" on the airplane, as Alexander Graham Bell did with the telephone. But Orville balks. Instead of taking the legal steps to shut other aircraft manufacturers down, he simply asks them to pay royalties - all except Curtiss. He will make no deals with Curtiss. At the same time, he begins to buy up the outstanding shares of the Wright Company. Curtiss, meanwhile, sees the handwriting on the wall and tries another legal maneuver. He procures the wreckage of Langely’s 1903 Great Aerodrome from the Smithsonian Institution and rebuilds it, making many improvements. Then he makes a few brief hops, hoping to prove to the courts that while the Wrights were the first to fly, they were not the first that could have flown. The Smithsonian embraces this view and thereafter displays the Aerodrome with a placard that it was the first airplane "capable of flight." Orville is incensed, and this begins a life-long feud with the Smithsonian.

Fall 1915 - Orville sells the Wright Company and his patents to a group of New York investors (several of whom were the original investors in the company) for $250,000. He is officially out of the airplane business and rich enough to pursue his own ambitions.



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