May 22, 1906 – Wrights receive a flying machine patent

On this day in 1906, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright received their first patent related to their “flying machine.”  They originally filed for the patent prior to their first powered flight, which took place on December 17, 1903, a few miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. After their first patent application was rejected, they hired a patent lawyer who helped them draft language that would ensure they would receive the proper credit for their invention. U.S. patent number 821,393 was issued for the invention of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine’s surfaces.

The brothers had been experimenting with unmanned flying machines since 1899, and manned flying the next year, when they began to test their gliders. Their patent launched what is now known as the Wright brothers patent war. Orville and Wilbur defended their patent ferociously in an effort to collect licensing fees from builders, including aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss would later be defeated in court by the Wrights, only to win on appeal. Curtiss would later get his own patents, and as the Wright Company and Curtiss did everything they could to receive royalties on their inventions, the cost of airplane manufacturing in the U.S. skyrocketed, at a time when war planes were desperately needed in Europe as World War I grew into a devastating conflict. These patents highly limited production capabilities.

Above: From left, Orville and Wilbur Wright, in portraits taken in 1905, when they were 34 and 38 years old.
Top: Start of a glide; Wilbur in motion at left holding one end of glider (rebuilt with single vertical rudder), Orville lying prone in machine, and Dan Tate at right, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on October 10, 1902.

To resolve the issue and reduce production costs for the war, the U.S. government pressured the aviation industry into a cross-licensing organization, known as a patent pool. This meant all aircraft makers were required to join and pay a small blanket fee for access to each others’ patents, with majority portions going to both Wright and Curtiss companies. The litigation expired in 1918, by which time Wilbur Wright had retired and Orville had sold his interest and retired. The Curtiss and Wright organizations merged in 1929 to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which still exists. 

Many historians believe the Wrights’ patent war damaged their reputation and delayed airplane development in the United States. While not wheeled automotive in nature, the invention of the flying machine forever changed transportation. Flying airplanes, of course, would heavily influence cars in relation to their aerodynamics and style, for decades to come.

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