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Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies

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From acclaimed historian Lawrence Goldstone comes a thrilling narrative of courage, determination, and competition: the story of the intense rivalry that fueled the rise of American aviation.   The feud between this nation’s great air pioneers, the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, was a collision of unyielding and profoundly American personalities. On one side, a pair of From acclaimed historian Lawrence Goldstone comes a thrilling narrative of courage, determination, and competition: the story of the intense rivalry that fueled the rise of American aviation.   The feud between this nation’s great air pioneers, the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, was a collision of unyielding and profoundly American personalities. On one side, a pair of tenacious siblings who together had solved the centuries-old riddle of powered, heavier-than-air flight. On the other, an audacious motorcycle racer whose innovative aircraft became synonymous in the public mind with death-defying stunts. For more than a decade, they battled each other in court, at air shows, and in the newspapers. The outcome of this contest of wills would shape the course of aviation history—and take a fearsome toll on the men involved.   Birdmen sets the engrossing story of the Wrights’ war with Curtiss against the thrilling backdrop of the early years of manned flight, and is rich with period detail and larger-than-life personalities: Thomas Scott Baldwin, or “Cap’t Tom” as he styled himself, who invented the parachute and almost convinced the world that balloons were the future of aviation; John Moisant, the dapper daredevil who took to the skies after three failed attempts to overthrow the government of El Salvador, then quickly emerged as a celebrity flyer; and Harriet Quimby, the statuesque silent-film beauty who became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. And then there is Lincoln Beachey, perhaps the greatest aviator who ever lived, who dazzled crowds with an array of trademark twists and dives—and best embodied the romance with death that fueled so many of aviation’s earliest heroes.   A dramatic story of unimaginable bravery in the air and brutal competition on the ground, Birdmen is at once a thrill ride through flight’s wild early years and a surprising look at the personal clash that fueled America’s race to the skies. Praise for Birdmen   “A meticulously researched account of the first few hectic, tangled years of aviation and the curious characters who pursued it . . . a worthy companion to Richard Holmes’s marvelous history of ballooning, Falling Upwards.”—Time   “The daredevil scientists and engineers who forged the field of aeronautics spring vividly to life in Lawrence Goldstone’s history.”—Nature   “The history of the development of an integral part of the modern world and a fascinating portrayal of how a group of men and women achieved a dream that had captivated humanity for centuries.”—The Christian Science Monitor   “Captivating and wonderfully presented . . . a fine book about these rival pioneers.”—The Wall Street Journal   “[A] vivid story of invention, vendettas, derring-do, media hype and patent fights [with] modern resonance.”—Financial Times   “A powerful story that contrasts soaring hopes with the anchors of ego and courtroom.” —Kirkus Reviews   “A riveting narrative about the pioneering era of aeronautics in America and beyond . . . Goldstone raises questions of enduring importance regarding innovation and the indefinite exertion of control over ideas that go public.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)


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From acclaimed historian Lawrence Goldstone comes a thrilling narrative of courage, determination, and competition: the story of the intense rivalry that fueled the rise of American aviation.   The feud between this nation’s great air pioneers, the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, was a collision of unyielding and profoundly American personalities. On one side, a pair of From acclaimed historian Lawrence Goldstone comes a thrilling narrative of courage, determination, and competition: the story of the intense rivalry that fueled the rise of American aviation.   The feud between this nation’s great air pioneers, the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, was a collision of unyielding and profoundly American personalities. On one side, a pair of tenacious siblings who together had solved the centuries-old riddle of powered, heavier-than-air flight. On the other, an audacious motorcycle racer whose innovative aircraft became synonymous in the public mind with death-defying stunts. For more than a decade, they battled each other in court, at air shows, and in the newspapers. The outcome of this contest of wills would shape the course of aviation history—and take a fearsome toll on the men involved.   Birdmen sets the engrossing story of the Wrights’ war with Curtiss against the thrilling backdrop of the early years of manned flight, and is rich with period detail and larger-than-life personalities: Thomas Scott Baldwin, or “Cap’t Tom” as he styled himself, who invented the parachute and almost convinced the world that balloons were the future of aviation; John Moisant, the dapper daredevil who took to the skies after three failed attempts to overthrow the government of El Salvador, then quickly emerged as a celebrity flyer; and Harriet Quimby, the statuesque silent-film beauty who became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. And then there is Lincoln Beachey, perhaps the greatest aviator who ever lived, who dazzled crowds with an array of trademark twists and dives—and best embodied the romance with death that fueled so many of aviation’s earliest heroes.   A dramatic story of unimaginable bravery in the air and brutal competition on the ground, Birdmen is at once a thrill ride through flight’s wild early years and a surprising look at the personal clash that fueled America’s race to the skies. Praise for Birdmen   “A meticulously researched account of the first few hectic, tangled years of aviation and the curious characters who pursued it . . . a worthy companion to Richard Holmes’s marvelous history of ballooning, Falling Upwards.”—Time   “The daredevil scientists and engineers who forged the field of aeronautics spring vividly to life in Lawrence Goldstone’s history.”—Nature   “The history of the development of an integral part of the modern world and a fascinating portrayal of how a group of men and women achieved a dream that had captivated humanity for centuries.”—The Christian Science Monitor   “Captivating and wonderfully presented . . . a fine book about these rival pioneers.”—The Wall Street Journal   “[A] vivid story of invention, vendettas, derring-do, media hype and patent fights [with] modern resonance.”—Financial Times   “A powerful story that contrasts soaring hopes with the anchors of ego and courtroom.” —Kirkus Reviews   “A riveting narrative about the pioneering era of aeronautics in America and beyond . . . Goldstone raises questions of enduring importance regarding innovation and the indefinite exertion of control over ideas that go public.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

30 review for Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies

  1. 4 out of 5

    Nancy Kennedy

    In a perverse sort of way, I might have been better off not reading this book. We Americans like our heroes to be likeable and inspiring. The Wilbur and Orville Wright in our school textbooks are just that. But in this book, they come to life in a less than inspiring way. The Wrights stood in a long line of aviation enthusiasts. "The problem of flight," as it was called, perplexed many a talented inventor and scientist. The Wrights were simply the ones who identified and solved the four major pro In a perverse sort of way, I might have been better off not reading this book. We Americans like our heroes to be likeable and inspiring. The Wilbur and Orville Wright in our school textbooks are just that. But in this book, they come to life in a less than inspiring way. The Wrights stood in a long line of aviation enthusiasts. "The problem of flight," as it was called, perplexed many a talented inventor and scientist. The Wrights were simply the ones who identified and solved the four major problems -- lift, weight, thrust and drag -- sufficiently enough to get off the ground in a controlled, long-distance flight. But all is not well from that famous Kitty Hawk moment on. Competition, lawsuits, aviators falling from the sky to their mangled deaths -- the early history of flight got pretty ugly. Through research into legal documents and personal letters, the author brings to life the personalities behind the myths, and it's not always pretty. The Wrights became embroiled in a bitter legal feud with another early aviator, Glenn Curtiss, over a design issue. Wilbur Wright is acerbic and unrelenting in his pursuit of glory, and Orville is a lackluster sidekick whose life descends into bitterness and eccentricity after Wilbur's early death. This book is a dense history of the early years of flight. You have to be a very dedicated aviation fancier to read every word. What fascinated me most was the story told at the very beginning of the book, when industries that appear at first to be separate -- bicycles and automobiles -- begin to converge, as brilliant innovators begin to piece together the elements of flight. The Wrights, for example, began as owners of a printing business (for which they built their own presses), and then switched to bicycle building and repair before delving into manned flight. This history brings a lot of perspective to the now eminently ordinary step we take into that cabin.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jerome

    A well-written book on a topic that that I have not read too much about. I won it in a giveaway, so I decided to give this a try. Goldstone tells the story of the birth of heavier-than-air flight through the rivalry between Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers. We see the strange phenomenon of America being the birthplace of heavier-than-air flight but being unable to field a battlefield-worthy warplane. The reason: the ugly feud between Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss, which consumed an insane A well-written book on a topic that that I have not read too much about. I won it in a giveaway, so I decided to give this a try. Goldstone tells the story of the birth of heavier-than-air flight through the rivalry between Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers. We see the strange phenomenon of America being the birthplace of heavier-than-air flight but being unable to field a battlefield-worthy warplane. The reason: the ugly feud between Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss, which consumed an insane amount of time, money, and energy, preventing either Wright or Curtiss from improving their inventions, and sadly preventing other Americans from doing the same. The Wright brothers didn’t even need money from lawsuits since they were already pretty rich. Their feud with Curtiss was so obsessive that they hardly seemed to have time for anything else: neither Wilbur nor Orville ever married, and probably never had any kind of romantic relationship. The Wright brothers’ greatest pleasure in life was seeing their rivals fail. The Wright brothers spent more time suing their rivals than developing aircraft. They were obsessed with protecting and monopolizing their flying machine, to the extent that actually developing and improving them became an afterthought. The Wrights wanted to sell their flying machines to the military, but were hindered by their self-imposed Catch-22: they refused to demonstrate that they would fly prior to signing a contract, while the military refused to sign a contract until a plane’s capabilities were demonstrated. People like Glenn Curtiss took advantage of the opportunity to sell their aircraft to the military without such legal obstacles, angering the Wright brothers even more. Goldstone tries to blame this debacle on the actual concept of patents, but this doesn’t make much sense: a broad patent is rather problematic, but regular patents aren’t, are they? A patent lawsuit is just a tool for something else. Goldstone also attempts to spread some of the blame on the “Protestant work ethic,” but there is a fairly major difference between working hard for a profit and between suing anybody you dislike, and besides, the Bible condemns dragging fellow believers into court anyway. Also, after telling the story of the lawsuit and of Orville Wright’s determination to sue Curtiss, Goldstone claims that the lawsuits were never resolved, even though the Wrights received a judgment. This part didn’t make a lot of sense. A well-written book, although Goldstone seems to think the words “notorious” and “famous” mean the same thing.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    Review title: Flying off the handle The history of the Wright brothers and the invention of powered flight has been well-covered and usually from the position of admiring the brothers' ingenuity, persistence, and engineering prowess. Goldstone instead focuses on Wilbur and Orville's prickly personalities, patent problems, and dearth of inventions after that first historic success. While usually treated as the heroes pictured on stamps and license plates, Goldstone doesn't. The other side of the st Review title: Flying off the handle The history of the Wright brothers and the invention of powered flight has been well-covered and usually from the position of admiring the brothers' ingenuity, persistence, and engineering prowess. Goldstone instead focuses on Wilbur and Orville's prickly personalities, patent problems, and dearth of inventions after that first historic success. While usually treated as the heroes pictured on stamps and license plates, Goldstone doesn't. The other side of the story is Glenn Curtiss who while initially friendly with the Wrights while they were both innovating quickly became a protagonist in court when the brothers switched to patent warfare to try to protect their monopoly on powered flight. Curtiss was an engineering equal and in Goldstone's estimation a superior builder of engines and airframes. But to the Wrights he was a thief who stole their ideas and profited from them. While the Wrights lawyered up and withheld their planes from the market to try to drive up interest to bring in maximum profits, Curtiss and other competitors took the opposite tack, flying their latest inventions in public exhibitions that became increasingly more daring, dangerous, and popular. The barnstorming pilots, according to Goldstone, would later be recognized for their essential role in the advancement of aviation innovation, but were prized by contemporaries for their flamboyent displays of showmanship. While during one dire stretch of mishaps Goldstone records that a pilot was crashing fatally on average every ten days, it was only the onset of war in 1914 that kept the European pilots home and turned attention toward military applications of the new transportation technology and brought an end to the barnstorming era. Even though he tries to balance out his criticism, Goldstone focuses on the negatives in the brothers' personalities, relationships with peers in the industry, business decisions, and engineering solutions. He seems to have intentionally taken on the role of singlehandedly balancing out any positive assessment of Wilbur and Orville's position in history. As such Birdmen is at times annoying and tedious to read; Goldstone seems as sour as he claims his subjects to be. The balancing effort may have been necessary (there is little doubt that their approach held back the advancement of aviation after their initial success in those early years) but is not necessarily fun to read.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Biblio Files (takingadayoff)

    Many of the early aviators were dashing, brave, even foolhardy. Not the Wright Brothers. They were undoubtedly good designers and engineers, but if there's any evidence that they enjoyed flying or making planes, it's well hidden. A more dour, unpleasant, grudge-holding, anti-social pair would be hard to find. Wilbur and Orville spent much of their aviation careers in federal court, fighting for the right to collect royalties on every airplane built. Not that they weren't entitled, under federal p Many of the early aviators were dashing, brave, even foolhardy. Not the Wright Brothers. They were undoubtedly good designers and engineers, but if there's any evidence that they enjoyed flying or making planes, it's well hidden. A more dour, unpleasant, grudge-holding, anti-social pair would be hard to find. Wilbur and Orville spent much of their aviation careers in federal court, fighting for the right to collect royalties on every airplane built. Not that they weren't entitled, under federal patent law, to the spoils of their inventions. But they were already wealthy from their invention and rather than leave it to the lawyers to duke it out, Wilbur was deeply involved in the court proceedings, to the exclusion of further inventing or improving aircraft. Neither Wilbur nor Orville ever married, or had any romances at all, as far as we can tell. Their greatest pleasure, it seems, was when their rivals failed at something. Meanwhile, aviation was growing faster than any one person or team could keep up with. The Wrights had been first at powered flight (balloons were still thought by many to be the future of aviation) but others had improved on their designs. Many countries, in the decade before World War I, were wondering how these new flying machines could give them an edge in battle or in espionage. Barnstormers were entertaining eager crowds. There was plenty of glory for everyone, and author Lawrence Goldstone tells story after story of the characters and the drama involved. Birdmen spells out the years-long patent fights in great detail and also gives us a real picture of the two Wright brothers as individuals. A little slow in spots, but Goldstone has made a complicated story understandable and clear.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mark Bacon

    The Wright Bros were not quite the American heroes we thought they were. Yes, they were our first powered fliers but they spent the decade after their history-making flight in a protracted legal battle over patents. They sued pioneer pilot and aircraft maker Glenn Curtiss and virtually anyone else who wanted to build an aeroplane that could be safely controlled. The Wrights, especially Wilbur, and Curtiss could have advanced aircraft design much further than they did but instead spent too much t The Wright Bros were not quite the American heroes we thought they were. Yes, they were our first powered fliers but they spent the decade after their history-making flight in a protracted legal battle over patents. They sued pioneer pilot and aircraft maker Glenn Curtiss and virtually anyone else who wanted to build an aeroplane that could be safely controlled. The Wrights, especially Wilbur, and Curtiss could have advanced aircraft design much further than they did but instead spent too much time with attorneys. Goldstone tells us that Wilbur was a design genius, but let himself be taken over by the desire to monopolize flying. Curtiss was a successful engine designer and builder who eventually created better aircraft than the Wrights. Goldstone wanted to balance the story between the harrowing tales of early dare-devil air shows, the continued legal wrangling over the Wright's "wing warping" patent and the story of how early planes were designed and tested. People who are more interested in the details of early aircraft design and manufacture will be wanting for more. The tales of early air-show pilots is compelling, the details of the sad legal wrangling not so much.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

    I received this book free from Goodreads and put is aside and just finally got around to reading it. This book throws a different light on the Wright Brothers and the coming of manned flight. I never knew much about the invention of flight vehicles and this book is pretty detailed. I have been to Wright Patterson Air Force museum in Dayton Ohio 8 times and I'd like to go back again soon because I now have a whole new outlook on the early days. If you have any interest in planes this is a great bo I received this book free from Goodreads and put is aside and just finally got around to reading it. This book throws a different light on the Wright Brothers and the coming of manned flight. I never knew much about the invention of flight vehicles and this book is pretty detailed. I have been to Wright Patterson Air Force museum in Dayton Ohio 8 times and I'd like to go back again soon because I now have a whole new outlook on the early days. If you have any interest in planes this is a great book!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Dolly

    I won this on goodreads. This is more than a history of the development of powered flight. It's an examination of the interaction of the driven, intelligent men who cracked the mystery of how to fly. Most modern general aviation pilots, me included, were not aware of the patent war between the Wright's and everyone. An examination of the perceived need to protect one's ideas and the relentless drive of technology. Spoiler - Wilbur Wright was the type of person you never want to know, let alone wo I won this on goodreads. This is more than a history of the development of powered flight. It's an examination of the interaction of the driven, intelligent men who cracked the mystery of how to fly. Most modern general aviation pilots, me included, were not aware of the patent war between the Wright's and everyone. An examination of the perceived need to protect one's ideas and the relentless drive of technology. Spoiler - Wilbur Wright was the type of person you never want to know, let alone work for.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jasrotian

    This book recounts the bravery, sacrifice, and intrigues of the early fliers, Birdmen – as they were called. It is a mesmerising account of those daredevils who belied the Newton’s prophecy that the powered flight was impossible. We are living in a world where the air travel seems so obvious; commonplace, we seldom think about the debt we owe to the early fliers who tamed the sky for safe aviation with their blood, toil, tears and sweat. Nobody could have imagined that the two brothers, making bi This book recounts the bravery, sacrifice, and intrigues of the early fliers, Birdmen – as they were called. It is a mesmerising account of those daredevils who belied the Newton’s prophecy that the powered flight was impossible. We are living in a world where the air travel seems so obvious; commonplace, we seldom think about the debt we owe to the early fliers who tamed the sky for safe aviation with their blood, toil, tears and sweat. Nobody could have imagined that the two brothers, making bicycles will solve the puzzle of flying by two simple insights: first, to learn to fly one must learn to balance; as riding a bicycle, and second, the way to achieve stability in flight was to make it inherently unstable. Phew! Simple isn’t it? The first insight owe to their bicycle background and second to their meticulous observation of the flight of the birds. While the majority of early flying enthusiast were relying exclusively on the powerful motors to provide required upward thrust towards the sky; the duo betted more on stability and control aspects of “the flying problem” – Wilbur Wright maintained that it was possible to fly without motors but not without knowledge and skill. Among all other competitors, Mr. Glen Curtiss gave the Wright Brothers a real run for their money in every domain. I think, the author has done injustice to the portrayal of Glen Curtiss – who deserved equal glory as a hero, as the Wright Brothers got in the book. The Wright brothers accused Mr. Curtiss of ripping off their “secret flying formula’’ by deceit. The book leaves this accusation undisturbed, perpetuating the conspiracy theorists claims and counterclaims as to whether the Wright Brothers were right or wrong? The reader also get a glimpse of some of the glaring shortcomings of the Wright brothers. Despite their vast technological advance neither Wilbur nor Orville had grasped that no lead is insurmountable if you stop running before you’ve reached the finish line— moral of the TORTISE and RABBIT story. Instead of piling on their invention, they started fighting for fame and profit. Interestingly, despite their bicycle background they never considered wheels for their flier, they used skids instead, during the take offs. Glen Curtiss used the wheels. The author laments on the obsessive focus of the Wright Brother’s on “fame and monopoly” which blunted the technological edge of the Americans; the country lost a decade of innovation. The exciting details of air exhibitions which caught the fancy of the people across the Atlantic and murky patent battles are two other fascinating themes of the book. As modern avatars of roman gladiators, the early pilots entertained the crowds with their gravity defying aerial acrobatics, often dying in pursuit of the records for speed, endurance, and altitude. The master pilot Lincoln Beachy – who could perform any aerial stunt worth its name— instinctively knew the psychology of the masses. “They all come to see me die,’’ he said to one reporter. As soon as the patent details kick in the narration, the reader gets tossed from the exciting world of birdmen to that filled with louche lawyers and clueless judges. For that matter, the patent laws remain as difficult to understand and administer today, as it was in the time of Glen Curtiss and the Wright brothers. Without the patent protection there will be no monetary incentive for the research and in the absence of a reasonable access to the patented knowledge the societies’ progress gets stifled. After a long and bitter battle, the Smithsonian Institution restored the honour of the first powered flight to the Wright brother, but for many it is not a final word yet. The list is long and growing day by day, there are many who are vying for the honour: Brazilian, Alberto Santos-Dumont; New Zealander, Richard Pearse; Frenchman,F.T. Croix; Russian, Alexander Mozhayskiy ; German, Karl Jatho; and, many Americans —Gustave Whitehead & Samuel P. Langley Herring and so on. With a little stretch of imagination on can see many parallels between the present day Silicon Valley culture and that of early aviation.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    Pretty decent book. I'd never read a bio of Wilbur and Orville before, and knew even less about Curtiss, other than knowing that by the start of WWI, for nascent military air fleets, he, not the Wright(s), were the go-to folks. That one "s" is in parentheses because Wilbur died in 1912 and Orville, according to Goldstone, didn't have the same energy for patent battles with Curtiss, although he and sister Katherine both blamed alleged patent infringement by Curtiss for causing Wilbur's death. Ahh, Pretty decent book. I'd never read a bio of Wilbur and Orville before, and knew even less about Curtiss, other than knowing that by the start of WWI, for nascent military air fleets, he, not the Wright(s), were the go-to folks. That one "s" is in parentheses because Wilbur died in 1912 and Orville, according to Goldstone, didn't have the same energy for patent battles with Curtiss, although he and sister Katherine both blamed alleged patent infringement by Curtiss for causing Wilbur's death. Ahh, let's start there. SCOTUS, Goldstone says, created something called "pioneer patents" in the late 1890s when it gave very broad patent approval to the Westinghouse air brake. To a degree, this allowed patents of ideas (something which has now been removed). The Wrights patented their wing warping for lateral control of planes, but, based on the Westinghouse ruling, claimed this covered ALL methods of lateral control, including the first versions of the ailerons that are used for that on all planes today. After about 1907, Wilbur spent almost all his time on US and European legal and business issues, and little on design, which allowed Curtiss, a motor mechanic first and foremost, to start passing the Wrights with the ailerons. Meanwhile, the French were working on rotary motors and monoplanes. Curtiss eventually created the first flying boat. Read more about how both Wrights were poor businessmen, Wilbur was a monomaniac on patent-related issues, and Orville was always second dog on the relationship between the brothers, as well as the first group of stuntman fliers. A lack of an additional 40-50 pages of detail were the one major thing, along with a few bits of "flow," that kept this from a fifth star.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    I've been to the Wright Brothers house in Dayton and I used to be a private pilot, but I knew nothing of the forerunners of aviation other than Icarus, Aristotle, Archimedes, Galileo, Leonardo and the Hindenberg Disaster. So I welcomed the early segment where I learned about George Cayley, Octave Chanute, Mouillard and Otto Lilienthal's studies. As other reviewers have gone into the story in depth, I would only remark on the brothers that they started so well and got so side-tracked in pursuit o I've been to the Wright Brothers house in Dayton and I used to be a private pilot, but I knew nothing of the forerunners of aviation other than Icarus, Aristotle, Archimedes, Galileo, Leonardo and the Hindenberg Disaster. So I welcomed the early segment where I learned about George Cayley, Octave Chanute, Mouillard and Otto Lilienthal's studies. As other reviewers have gone into the story in depth, I would only remark on the brothers that they started so well and got so side-tracked in pursuit of legalreparations that they lost focus. It is no wonder others beat them out. Complaints about the book? As one gets into the legal battle sections, one gets partial dates like :"Jan 11 or November 15 etc, but one is lost as far as which year one is reading about. More years mentioned, even if just in the chapter headings would be helpful. Also, the book totally misses another pioneer that did not know he should be pushing for publicity. I live near Bridgeport, CT where Gustave Whitehead made a flight that bested the Wright Brothers two years before they had their 1st flight. The Smithsonian will not acknowledge the claim but Jane's "All the World's Aircraft" does. If interested, go to the Fox news site for that story: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/0...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Parts of this book were enjoyable, e.g., descriptions of the incredibly rapid development of the "aeroplane" once the Wright brothers showed that heavier-than-air flight was possible, the revelation of Wilbur Wright as both genius and flawed human being, the unbelievable number of aviators killed in the first ten years of death defying stunt flying, etc. The descriptions of the legal wrangling over patents, in which the Wrights fought to maintain a monopoly on their invention but which actually Parts of this book were enjoyable, e.g., descriptions of the incredibly rapid development of the "aeroplane" once the Wright brothers showed that heavier-than-air flight was possible, the revelation of Wilbur Wright as both genius and flawed human being, the unbelievable number of aviators killed in the first ten years of death defying stunt flying, etc. The descriptions of the legal wrangling over patents, in which the Wrights fought to maintain a monopoly on their invention but which actually squelched the innovation for which they had become famous, was interesting for a while, but became so repetitive as to induce yawns. But it's well written, well researched, and I learned something new.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jbondandrews

    I really enjoyed reading this book. It is somewhat hard to understand why the Wright Brothers wasted so much of their time fighting legal battles and not doing more with aeronautics or other inventions or that Orville could not seem to go on without Wilbur. What they did achieve was something special but they could and should have done much more.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Linda Kenny

    This book is a different take on the Wright brothers and their competitor Glenn Curtiss. I found the story slow moving especially when we got into the patent disputes. Although historically interesting I wasn't sure how detailing the death of so many pilots impacted the battle to control the skies. There are much better books out there on early flight. This book is a different take on the Wright brothers and their competitor Glenn Curtiss. I found the story slow moving especially when we got into the patent disputes. Although historically interesting I wasn't sure how detailing the death of so many pilots impacted the battle to control the skies. There are much better books out there on early flight.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Hildegart

    First reads book. I struggled to get this book read through no fault of the author's. I kept finding books that were parts of series I'm reading and put this book down to read the others. I did not do this book justice. I'll be passing this book along to other family members. First reads book. I struggled to get this book read through no fault of the author's. I kept finding books that were parts of series I'm reading and put this book down to read the others. I did not do this book justice. I'll be passing this book along to other family members.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ronnie Cramer

    This engrossing account of early powered flight really gives you a sense of how fast aviation developed between the end of the 19th century and World War I. Well researched and skillfully written, with a good balance of the technology, business and personalities involved.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Michele

    I just read Bill Bryson's book One Summer, America 1927 which had a lot of early aviation history. I'm looking forward to reading about the earlier history. I just read Bill Bryson's book One Summer, America 1927 which had a lot of early aviation history. I'm looking forward to reading about the earlier history.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jen Smith

    This book's title is somewhat more exciting than the actual book; this is a dense read, and is therefore not a book for someone who just wants a quick overview of the early years of powered flight. That said, the density is made up of closely-packed facts, and a considerable bibliography at the end. It's a book for the reader who really wants a blow-by-blow account of the development of powered flight, from Lilienthal and his gliders onwards - although as the title says, most of the book is abo This book's title is somewhat more exciting than the actual book; this is a dense read, and is therefore not a book for someone who just wants a quick overview of the early years of powered flight. That said, the density is made up of closely-packed facts, and a considerable bibliography at the end. It's a book for the reader who really wants a blow-by-blow account of the development of powered flight, from Lilienthal and his gliders onwards - although as the title says, most of the book is about the Wrights and their patent litigation against nearly everyone else in aviation. This makes it a very American-centric book; the Wrights' (or Wilbur's) move from design and innovation to spending most of his time on litigation (mostly against Curtiss) is the main theme of the book, but at the expense of including information on interesting technical developments happening elsewhere in the world. By 1914, the forefront of aircraft innovation had moved away from America to Europe, but there is little mention of what European engineers were doing (other than, according to Wilbur Wright, infringing patents). This is also primarily a history book, not a technical one. The narrative is of who and what, not how. I admit, I would have liked more technical detail on the various actors' inventions, but then it would have been a different book. The writing isn't, perhaps, the most inspired (and patent litigation is only exciting to some people) - it took me a while to read this, although that was partly because it hasn't been published as an eBook - but the author has certainly done his research. The reader comes away from this book with a much better picture of the years of American aviation between 1903 and 1919, who the major players were, and what was going on behind the scenes. As it is, one is left with a very clear picture of a man (Wilbur) who made an incredibly significant first discovery... but then was too closed-minded to continue to develop it or incorporate discoveries made by others, resulting in the pioneers being left behind in the industry they had started, less than 10 years later. One also starts to wonder, what would have happened if the Wrights hadn't been so focused on patent litigation at the expense of further innovation? What would have happened if they hadn't simply tried to refine their own first design, rather than incorporating the innovations (e.g. ailerons) of others? What would have happened if either of the Wrights (or indeed Curtiss) had been better businessmen? If you are interested in the early years of flight, therefore, this is a book very well worth the reading.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    "The Wright-Curtiss feud persists to the present day as a proxy war - historians of early flight tend to deify one and demonize the other. Either the Wrights were brilliant visionaries and honest toilers attempting to ward off the incursions of those, particularly Curtiss, who stole their ideas and even perhaps improved on them, but refused to acknowledge their debt in word or banknote; or Wilbur and Orville were rapacious misanthropes who were all too happy too stop progress in its tracks by st "The Wright-Curtiss feud persists to the present day as a proxy war - historians of early flight tend to deify one and demonize the other. Either the Wrights were brilliant visionaries and honest toilers attempting to ward off the incursions of those, particularly Curtiss, who stole their ideas and even perhaps improved on them, but refused to acknowledge their debt in word or banknote; or Wilbur and Orville were rapacious misanthropes who were all too happy too stop progress in its tracks by stifling brilliant innovators, particularly Curtiss, all to stuff their pockets with more money than they could spend in ten lifetimes. Both Descriptions contain grains of truth but each is mostly beside the point. Whether Curtiss would have discovered the secrets of flight if he had not journeyed to Dayton in September 1906 is also not relevant to the larger issue. Curtiss may not have been an intuitive genius but he was an inveterate innovator; he may have been incapable of a great breakthrough, but he would constantly improve any resultant product. Wilbur Wright was a visionary architect, but Glenn Curtiss was a master builder. One can dispute who was more vital but progress unquestionably demands both. By attempting to neuter Curtiss, even if their accusations were correct, the Wrights stifled the development of American aviation. That is, of course, the irony of the patent system. Without patent protection, a competitor can simply replicate an invention and undercut the inventor's price - which necessarily includes all the time and expense of research and development - so the incentive to experiment and create will be severely inhibited. But if innovators such as Glenn Curtiss cannot build on the progress of others without paying exorbitantly for the priviledge, the incentive to continue to experiment and create is similarly inhibited. Finding the proper balance remains difficult. Although pioneer patents have passed from jurisprudence, the patent system remains as difficult to administer as it was in the Wright's time as the plethora of suits among internet providers and device makers will attest." -Lawrence Goldstone "In pursuing damages over technology, the Wrights had rendered themselves anachronisms. Their lack of moderation was equally self-defeating. Wilbur and Orville thought anyone who did not see things their way was either ignorant or duplicitous; anyone who overtly disagreed with them was either a liar or a cheat. The fact that the performances of their competitors improved while Wright airplanes remained substantially unchanged was, according to the brothers, only because the rest of the aviation community were a bunch of craven patent infringers." - Lawrence Goldstone

  19. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    For all the adulation heaped on Orville and Wilbur Wright--the two Midwestern bike-shop owners who flew the first working airplane more than a century ago--history forgets that, beyond their scientific and automotive skills, not to mention a fearless desire to succeed, the two men were also stubborn, selfish assholes. While other aviators of the day were determined to see manned flight realized for the sake of progress--of moving humanity towards horizons both literal and figurative--the Wrights For all the adulation heaped on Orville and Wilbur Wright--the two Midwestern bike-shop owners who flew the first working airplane more than a century ago--history forgets that, beyond their scientific and automotive skills, not to mention a fearless desire to succeed, the two men were also stubborn, selfish assholes. While other aviators of the day were determined to see manned flight realized for the sake of progress--of moving humanity towards horizons both literal and figurative--the Wrights balked at such altruistic ideals and, in patenting aspects of their design, made it almost impossible for others to perfect motorized flight and move the technology forward. In fact, once their achievements at Kitty Hawk were publicized and their patent was certified, their story became one of litigation, greed, obsession, and the failed promise of two otherwise indispensable minds. It's this history--of the Wright's battle for supremacy, especially against fellow inventor and aviator Glenn Curtiss--that dominates most of Birdmen, Lawrence Goldstone's account of how two of the most idolized Americans did more than anyone else to undermine not only worldwide progress but also their own legacies. Despite their humble beginnings, Orville and Wilbur Wright did not want for wealth. Their Ohio bike shop was not only a prescient idea--in the era before airplanes and the Model T, the bike was serious transportation--but also quite successful, and after their triumph at Kitty Hawk, they could have easily and comfortably lived off the fortune and prestige that came with fame. Public appearances and demonstrations alone would have sufficed, and eventually they could have competed against others for monetary prizes--which, as Goldstone shows in exhausting detail, were not just sizable but plentiful. (Goldstone also shows that the Wright brothers were skilled pilots and could easily have bested their competition.) Had they never manufactured a single plane of their own--had they simply drawn up their designs and passed them around to other aviators and businessmen--they could have lived out the remainder of their days without concern, forever revered by a world that would have forever been in debt to them. Instead, the Wrights enlisted an attorney who understood patent laws, and in just three years they had built a virtual monopoly on one lone patent, which would require anyone who designed, purchased, or flew airplanes to pay their company a hefty sum, if not become part of their monolith altogether.* It was a ruthless decision on their part, one that was written in such a way as to give the appearance of small copyright claims--on flaps, rudders, and so on, all of them seemingly insignificant parts of the overall design--that, in total, handed over complete control of the entire industry to both men. (After all, without those small bits and pieces, a plane would have been useless.) Unfortunately for the Wrights--but fortunately for everyone else--the long wait allowed others to design, build, and fly their own planes, often improving on the Wrights' own work. By the time the patent--number 821993--became official, their design was already slipping into obsolescence. The Wrights could easily have returned to their workshops--to the beaches of Kitty Hawk, even--and made their own changes, drawing on their skills and insights before their competition could do the same; had they done so, they would have remained important players in the "battle to control the skies." It would have been a beneficial decision for everyone, not just the brothers and their fellow enthusiasts, but once again Orville and Wilbur Wright chose to march in the opposite direction. For the rest of their lives--Orville would die in 1912 at the age of 45, a tragedy Wilbur attributed almost solely to the constant pressures of litigation, and Wilbur himself would pass away a bitter recluse in 1948, at the age of 76--they would haunt court-rooms, make spurious demands for payment, elicit antagonism from the general public without apology or concern for their business' public relations, and travel across Europe fighting foreign manufacturers and governments. And with one small exception--a simple design that Orville did not nurture beyond its conception--neither brother would ever invent again. More than a century later, we live in an age of streamlined, industrialized innovation, when new ideas do not spring from North Carolina beaches or the workshops of bike repairmen, from suburban garages or the kitchen laboratories of curious teenagers or housewives, but from well-funded and organized movements. These are often funded by millionaires and billionaires, each claiming to be in search of revolutionary ideas to make the world "a better place" and fix the seemingly unfixable, but more often than not their endeavors are tinged with the stink of profit--of capitalism masked as innovation. And while this is far from detrimental--after all, money accelerates any process, and those who actualize the next Big Idea deserve to be justly rewarded--it removes human independence and ingenuity from the procedure, both of which are vital to progress. The Wright brothers were able to create and refine their designs because they had funding, yes, but that assurance allowed them to work on an idea that already existed and to do so independent of any outside influence. Had they not been two bike-shop owners with an idea and had, instead, been two employees in windowless cubicles or on the floor of a multi-acre plant, there can be no guarantee of success. Would they have survived above the noises of the bureaucracy? Would their designs have passed quality control, or would they have faced instant rejections for its flaws? (Their original designs had many.) Would they have even been given credit, or would it have been the "invention" of their superiors and CEO, in much the same way Edison claimed the designs of others as his own? Right now, there are thousands--possibly even millions--of innovators pushing to realize a dream of their own, most of them much more attuned to their responsibility than the Wrights were. The true questions is, are we doing enough for them--giving them the space, the funding, and the freedom to pioneer--or are attempts at fostering their ideas done selfishly and only for ourselves? Because, as the story of the Wright brothers makes clear, those who create for the sake of the world and those who create for the sake of themselves are often hard to distinguish, and it may just be true that they are--at one point in time--one in the same, liable to tip in either direction, dependent on little more than the winds of the day. *The Wrights were also assisted in this process by the era's patent laws, which were opaque and favored business over innovation, and a judge who was unapologetically biased towards the two brothers. This review was originally published at There Will Be Books Galore.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Vic Lauterbach

    This book includes some interesting information about the early aviation pioneers, but it degenerates into hagiography when describing the Wrights who are its central characters. Although Goldstone follows the recent trend in elevating Wilber and denigrating Orville, the brothers still get credit for "advancing the theory of flight" even though they published no original research and provided no assistance to any other pioneers. Avoiding the question of why the Wrights were so secretive, Goldsto This book includes some interesting information about the early aviation pioneers, but it degenerates into hagiography when describing the Wrights who are its central characters. Although Goldstone follows the recent trend in elevating Wilber and denigrating Orville, the brothers still get credit for "advancing the theory of flight" even though they published no original research and provided no assistance to any other pioneers. Avoiding the question of why the Wrights were so secretive, Goldstone simply repeats what others have written in histories of early aviation. He does quote some primary sources, but he carefully avoids the question of how much the Wrights leveraged the work of others. A glaring example occurs on page 73 where Goldstone states, "There is no overstating the magnitude of Wilber's achievements given such a primitive starting point." This repeats the myth that the Wrights "fixed" Lilienthal's data with their wind tunnel. Yet one page earlier, Goldstone stated that "he [Wilber] could rely on Lilienthal's tables..." Yes, indeed, Wilber told Chanute in a 1901 letter that Lilienthal's data was accurate. How is having a accurate design table a primitive starting point? Sadly, Wilber actually ignored Lilienthal and the earlier work of Horatio F. Phillips on airfoils, but that's another story. Goldstone's capacity for error is breath-takingly large. On page 125, he captions a photograph "Wilber in prone position just after landing a glider." That an 'aviation historian' calls a machine with propellers a glider casts doubt on every statement he makes. Published in 1908, the photo shows, according to the Wrights, the 1903 Flyer after crashing and damaging its forward elevators on December 14, 1903. While such sloppy research doesn't ruin this book, it does make it frustrating to read. The last four chapters are the best part of the book, and all the sections about the 'other' early aviators are much better than the tired rehash of the Wrights' story, but I still can't recommend it.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Dwayne Coleman

    What I ask of a history book is that it be complete, well-researched, balanced, and factually accurate, and as far as I can tell, from a non-expert standpoint, this book does all those things. The only negative for me is how dry the parts covering the lawsuits between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss are, but that's really not the fault of the author if he's going to tell the whole story. Still, I was fairly bored with the passages about patent law and related topics. What is interesting to What I ask of a history book is that it be complete, well-researched, balanced, and factually accurate, and as far as I can tell, from a non-expert standpoint, this book does all those things. The only negative for me is how dry the parts covering the lawsuits between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss are, but that's really not the fault of the author if he's going to tell the whole story. Still, I was fairly bored with the passages about patent law and related topics. What is interesting to me are the details about the personalities of the early aviators and the cultural attitude toward them. In all, it is an informative book worth reading, but don't expect to be on the edge of your seat.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Roger Rosenberg

    A very different take on the Wright Brothers and early aviation. While the Wrights stuck with the original Flyer design, others, like Glen Curtiss made major improvements, inventing monoplanes, sea planes, ailerons and control systems. Additionally, the lawsuits the Wrights employed against competitors probably slowed aviation development. It is also an indictment, I think, of what the management and investment gurus call"first mover advantage." Rather than an advantage, the first mover takes a A very different take on the Wright Brothers and early aviation. While the Wrights stuck with the original Flyer design, others, like Glen Curtiss made major improvements, inventing monoplanes, sea planes, ailerons and control systems. Additionally, the lawsuits the Wrights employed against competitors probably slowed aviation development. It is also an indictment, I think, of what the management and investment gurus call"first mover advantage." Rather than an advantage, the first mover takes a risk that others will produce a better widget, one aircraft, or cellular phone.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Thom Pantazi

    We all know about the Wright brothers but I knew virtually nothing about the competition. It turns out there were other heroes who were just as tenacious. This book shows more about there way America was at the time so the significance is more impactful. It makes you reflect on fact that success came out of some unlikely places. Even though they are known for inventing powered flight, the Wright brothers missed some huge opportunities because of their greed and arrogance. Read the book to see ho We all know about the Wright brothers but I knew virtually nothing about the competition. It turns out there were other heroes who were just as tenacious. This book shows more about there way America was at the time so the significance is more impactful. It makes you reflect on fact that success came out of some unlikely places. Even though they are known for inventing powered flight, the Wright brothers missed some huge opportunities because of their greed and arrogance. Read the book to see how.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    Birdmen is a detailed and fascinating history of the nascence of heavier-than-air flight. I kind of wish I had not learned so much about the Wright Brothers and their preoccupation with litigation and squeezing every last cent out of their invention. Learning about Glenn Curtiss’ many contributions to flight was interesting. Many aviators were also ballonists, race car drivers, even a South American rebel! The daredevil flyers were fascinating in their own right. If you like aeronautics, you’ll Birdmen is a detailed and fascinating history of the nascence of heavier-than-air flight. I kind of wish I had not learned so much about the Wright Brothers and their preoccupation with litigation and squeezing every last cent out of their invention. Learning about Glenn Curtiss’ many contributions to flight was interesting. Many aviators were also ballonists, race car drivers, even a South American rebel! The daredevil flyers were fascinating in their own right. If you like aeronautics, you’ll love Birdmen!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Pauline Mountain

    This is a scholarly work dealing with North Carolina's contribution to flight. The Wright Brothers, yes, but it goes well beyond the Wright Brothers, into the competition between them and Glenn Curtiss, early races and barnstorming, stunt flying for movies, the development of airplanes as war machines in World War I, and even the development of the parachute. This is an important work. I just wish it was more readable. This is a scholarly work dealing with North Carolina's contribution to flight. The Wright Brothers, yes, but it goes well beyond the Wright Brothers, into the competition between them and Glenn Curtiss, early races and barnstorming, stunt flying for movies, the development of airplanes as war machines in World War I, and even the development of the parachute. This is an important work. I just wish it was more readable.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kurry Swigert

    The book was interesting and brought to light many little known facts about the Wright brothers. I was aware of the impact Glenn Curtiss had on early aviation but I was not aware of the damage done by the Wright brothers by their constant patent infringement battles that kept others (and the Wrights) from innovation.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Well-researched story on the creation and rise of flying machines. While the author spends much time on the rivalry between the Wrights and other competitors, what I found amazing was how many pilots kept on pushing to fly unsafe planes in pursuit of fame and fortune, with many losing their lives in crashes.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Abby Irwin

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I loved the book. However even though I know they were just telling the story the ending felt sort of depressing because like none of what happened in the book ended up mattering in the end. The book did get a little long but other than those things it was very interesting and I felt they did a good job presenting facts instead if opinions.

  29. 4 out of 5

    KennyO

    This author has done his homework! Where there is good, defensible documentation, he uses it and uses it well. Much of the selected bibliography is contemporary and it is all relevant. Where supporting documents are weak or absent, he says so rather than speculate. I've read many books of varying quality about nascent aviation and this one has done the best job of tying together the various stories. Goldstone makes clear that the developers of flying machines were not working in isolation but th This author has done his homework! Where there is good, defensible documentation, he uses it and uses it well. Much of the selected bibliography is contemporary and it is all relevant. Where supporting documents are weak or absent, he says so rather than speculate. I've read many books of varying quality about nascent aviation and this one has done the best job of tying together the various stories. Goldstone makes clear that the developers of flying machines were not working in isolation but that they learned from one another. He is a skilled and lucid writer, rendering a complex story pretty easy to grasp. Enthusiastically recommended!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    I picked this one up and put it down, but always enjoyed the time I spent with it. Enlightening, with a great deal of historical context. Great for anyone (like me) who has always defaulted to crediting the Wright brothers with being the sole conquerers of manned, powered flight.

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