This Week in Intellectual Property History

On May 22, 1906, the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued U.S. Patent No. 821,393 entitled, “Flying Machine” to Orville and Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were American inventors and aviation pioneers. Although they were not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed wing flight possible and achieved the first powered, sustained, and controlled flight of an airplane from level ground without any assistance at takeoff. Wilbur first became interested in the idea of mechanical flight after reading of Otto Lilienthal’s successful gliding experiments in Germany. From these studies and observations, the Wrights built their first machine in 1899. It was a biplane kite which they fitted with wings that could be mechanically twisted.

They completed their first powered machine, the Kitty Hawk, in 1903, and made history’s first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flights from level ground without any assistance at takeoff on the morning of December 17, 1903. In 1908 they were able to conclude an agreement for production of the Wright airplane for the U.S. Army. Wilbur made the first public flight on August 8, 1908 in France and continued his exhibition flights there through the end of that year.

The brothers’ fundamental breakthrough was their invention of “three axis-control” (of pitch, roll and yaw), which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. In fact, the ‘393 patent actually claims as its invention a system of aerodynamic control that manipulates a flying machine’s surfaces. The patent actually illustrated a non-powered flying machine. The patent’s importance lies in its claim of a new and useful method of controlling a flying machine, powered or not.

The Wright brothers were two of seven children born to Milton Wright and Susan Catherine Koerner. Wilbur was born in Millville, Indiana; Orville in Dayton, Ohio. Their father was a bishop of the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Both completed high school courses, but neither graduated formally. In 1878 their father, who traveled often, brought home a toy “helicopter” for his two younger sons. The device was based on an invention of French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Penaud. Made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor, it was about a foot long. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke, and then built their own. In later years, they pointed to their experience with the toy as the initial spark of their interest in flying.

In 1893 the brothers opened a shop for the sale, repair, and manufacture of bicycles. Income from the shop supported them during the early years of their aeronautical experiments.

The Wright brothers always presented a unified image to the public, sharing equally in the credit for their invention. Biographers note, however, that Wilbur took the initiative in 1899–1900, writing of “my” machine and “my” plans before Orville became deeply involved when the first person singular became the plural “we” and “our”.  Author James Tobin asserts, “it is impossible to imagine Orville, bright as he was, supplying the driving force that started their work and kept it going from the back room of a store in Ohio to conferences with capitalists, presidents, and kings. Will did that. He was the leader, from the beginning to the end.”

Wikipedia has a lengthy discussion of the brothers and the history of the development of their airplane, their personal histories and their patent disputes with others.
See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_brothers .

Both the brothers died bachelors (Wilbur in 1912 and Orville in 1948); aviation had been their only passion. Wilbur was once quoted as saying he, “could not support a wife and a flying machine.”

Orville and Wilbur were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1975.

Make some Intellectual Property History this week!

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