by Ray Locker)
We take it for granted that Wilbur and Orville Wright, two bicycle-making brothers from Dayton, Ohio, flew the first airplane and pioneered the development of aviation. Their names adorn an Air Force base in their hometown; North Carolina's license plates brag about the brothers' feat on the sands of the state's Outer Banks.
But, as author Lawrence Goldstone shows, giving wings to man involved more than just two hyper-focused brothers in Kitty Hawk. Socially awkward inventors, deep-pocketed venture capitalists and a steady stream of patent lawsuits marked the birth of aviation, much as they have in Silicon Valley.
In Birdmen, his engaging history about the pioneers of flight, Goldstone writes how the Wright Brothers' place in history was not always guaranteed.
Their initial successes were often overshadowed by others more adept at generating publicity. They included inventor Samuel Langley, who assembled a horde of reporters to watch his attempt to launch an aircraft, called an aerodrome, in the Potomac River near Washington. Langley's plane failed spectacularly.
A telegram sent to the local Dayton Journal about the Wright brothers' first flight on Dec. 17, 1903, was deemed unworthy of publication. It was only weeks later that the accomplishment would receive any publicity.
"Why the Wrights' achievement did not receive the sort of triumphant headlines that would have greeted Langley's success remains a mystery," Goldstone writes. "Perhaps the spectacular assertions were difficult to take seriously after the aerodrome's equally spectacular failure."
In little more than five years, the brothers had reversed course. Using tactics that would make any Gilded Age titan blush, the Wrights assembled a team of the nation's richest men, including financier J.P. Morgan, to finance their attempt to corner the aviation market. Their lawyers threatened rival inventors, such as Glenn Curtiss, with patent infringement.
Instead of developing better aircraft, the Wrights devoted most of their energies on lawsuits in the hopes of cashing in with licensing fees and driving Curtiss out of business. They temporarily won the legal battle but lost the technological war. The legal battles weakened Wilbur Wright's health. He died in 1912 from "an ailment that in the coming decades would be routinely vanquished with antibiotics." Orville Wright lived for another 36 years, but he never matched his brother's drive or innovation.
Curtiss outpaced them. He may have lost in court but he simply made better planes.
Goldstone clearly knows his subject well. He writes with the clarity and precision of someone who knows how much science he needs to make an innovation credible and how much narrative pacing he needs to make the reader care.
The author is also blessed with a deep and rich cast of characters to examine. The first years of flight, marked by men and some women who took to the skies in rickety machines often doomed to failure, were not for the timid. Designing and building an airplane took both vision and courage; selling the ideas to a skeptical public and investors required a belief in the science and a certain audacity.
One, Augustus Herring, brought a con man's nerve to his work as he bilked investors into believing he possessed patents that would give him an advantage. He scammed Curtiss into joining forces, a decision that Curtiss would later regret.
Lincoln Beachey was the era's Chuck Yeager, a daring pilot who risked his life every time he took the controls of his Curtiss aircraft. Beachey captivated the public with his adventures, but he took risks that inspired dozens of less talented pilots to emulate. Their inexperience would kill them, and later Beachey himself after his airplane crashed into San Francisco Bay.
"As he sunk into forty feet of water, he clawed desperately at his harness and the tangle of cables and detritus," Goldstone writes. "In the end, the greatest aviator America has ever seen died of drowning."
For these touches and many others, Goldstone's Birdmen is The Right Stuff of aviation's pre-World War I era.
Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies
By Lawrence Goldstone
Ballantine, 386 pp.
3.5 stars out of four
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