Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplaneby Seth Shulman (HarperCollins, 258 pages, 2002)

Review and Interview by Mark Wolverton

American History,February 2003

The victors get to write the history, goes the familiar maxim. One classic example is the story of the airplane, which of course, as everyone knows, was completely invented by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903. Well--not quite. As author Seth Shulman reveals in Unlocking the Sky, the modern airplane is the culmination of the efforts of many inventors, including the Wrights's main bete noire: Glenn Curtiss. A champion motorcycle racer and bonafide mechanical genius who made the first public flight in the United States in 1908 with an airplane he designed and built, Curtiss went on to almost single-handedly launch the American aircraft industry while racking up an impressive array of aeronautical firsts as a pilot and inventor. Jealously protective of their pioneering status and, as Shulman argues, the vast profits to be derived from the overly-broad patent on their airplane, the Wrights accused Curtiss of "stealing" their work and launched a war of litigation that nearly drove Curtiss out of aviation entirely. Yet Curtiss persisted, devising aviation technology that's still used today, including ailerons and retractable landing gear.

Telling a fascinating and fast-paced story, Shulman does an admirable job of balancing the historical scales. Curtiss comes to life in these pages as a tireless innovator who overcame roadblocks that would have crushed lesser individuals. In Shulman's portrayal, Curtiss is less a staid historical figure than a sympathetic, colorful character whose story has enough ups and downs to make a Hollywood epic (Tom Hanks, are you listening?) As the world prepares to celebrate the centennial of the airplane's first flight in December 2003, Shulman makes a convincing case that Curtiss deserves at least an equal share of the spotlight.

MARK WOLVERTON recently wrote about the B-36 atomic bomber project for American History.

Talking With Seth Shulman

"My goal wasn't in any way to trash the contribution of the Wright brothers," Seth Shulman explains. "There's no question that they (the Wrights) put the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together and got an airplane off the ground under control. Nothing can take that away."

But after discovering the story of Wright v. Curtiss while researching a previous book on patent battles (Owning the Future), Shulman became convinced that Curtiss's contributions have been unjustly overlooked. "I was amazed by how much (Curtiss's story) differed from what I'd ever known about the origin of the airplane, which was very focused on the Wright brothers. Even when you go back to the primary sources of the birth of aviation in America, they're partisan documents. There was controversy over who shold get credit right from the start." As he studied the case, Shulman says, "I really sided with Curtiss's arguments and thought the Wright patent was way too broad and probably wouldn't pass muster today."

Despite the Wrights's vindictiveness toward Curtiss, they had much in common. "It's really interesting that both the Wrights and Curtiss were bicycle builders," Shulman points out. "Bicycles were such a big thing and it was such a natural place to go for people like them with not too much education but with an innate mechanical ability."

Curtiss was definitely ahead of his time, a man with both a 19th-century romantic flair and a 20th-century practical bent. As Shulman explains, he was far from a starry-eyed dreamer. "He was a visionary, but not a wild-eyed one. He was a businessman too. He was that perfect kind of visionary who didn't look too far off to the future, but just to the next thing."


(C) 2003 Mark Wolverton. All rights reserved.

Click on the cover above to buy Unlocking the Skyat Amazon.com