State of Innovation

Patents and Innovation Economics

Wright Brothers Didn’t Invent the Airplane and Edison Didn’t Invent the Light Bulb

Fox News has an article, Wright brothers flew 2 years after Gustav Whitehead, Researcher Claims, that suggests that Wright brothers did not invent the airplane.  The article is correct; the Wright brothers invented the system that allows for controlled, powered flight.  Their plane used wing wrapping, but their patent application made it clear that they could use control surfaces (ailerons, elevators, and rudders).  Rudders were known before the Wright brothers.  The article suggests that Whitehead was the first person to achieve powered flight, but this is clearly incorrect.  There were numerous people before Whitehead and the Wright brothers who had achieved powered flight.  Others had also understood the need for a rudder, but only the Wright brothers understood the need for all the control surfaces.

I decided to investigate if Whitehead had any unique control surfaces?  Since most people do not understand what the Wright brother invented, this information is difficult to come by.  But as best as I can tell Whitehead had a rudder and shifted his weight in the aircraft to control the plane.  This was not unique when Whitehead undertook his flight.  In other words Whitehead’s flight was a demonstration of what was known, not an invention.

This article is typical of the ignorance in the debate about invention and patents.

 

For another example of this ignorance see Did Edison Invent the Light Bulb?

I would like to believe these are innocent mistakes – but I don’t.  I think they are a coordinated attack on the patent system and individual inventors.  The goal of this attack is to suggest that no one invents anything and therefore the patent system is unfair and should be eliminated.

 

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March 14, 2013 - Posted by | -History, Innovation, News, Patents | , , , ,

13 Comments »

  1. Mr. Halling,

    If you’re going to review my website, it might be a good idea if you read it first.
    Gustave Whitehead disclosed wing-warping on Dec. 1, 1902 in Aeronautical World Magazine,
    http://www.gustave-whitehead.com/history/1902-12-aeron-world-wing-warping/
    almost 4 months before the Wright Brothers applied for their wing-warping patent (on Mar. 23, 1903).
    http://www.gustave-whitehead.com/history/wright-patent-applied-march-23-1903/
    Was you posting “ignorant”? Was it “a coordinated attack”? “Unfair”? (your words, not mine)

    John Brown

    Comment by John Brown | April 9, 2013 | Reply

  2. Dear Mr. Brown,

    Your site is the only one that discusses a control surface. Most of the articles only talk about powered flight, which had been done well before Whitehead. So I stand on the stupidity of the article in Fox News.

    Your article is from Dec. 1, 1902, but the Wright brothers had wing warping in 1899. “In July 1899 Wilbur put wing warping to the test by building and flying a biplane kite that had a five foot wingspan. When the wings were warped, or twisted, one end of the wings produced more lift and the other end, less lift” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_brothers#Flights. If Mr. Whitehead had been in front of the Wright brothers there was an active market in patents at the time and he could have filed for a patent understanding the potential financial gains. He did not and the evidence you present does not show that he discovered controlled flight before the Wright brother. While the Wright brothers did not add power to their planes until 1903, they invented the control surface before Whitehead. AND THAT WAS WHAT THERE INVENTION WAS ABOUT.

    So yes, I think you failed to do your basic research.

    Comment by dbhalling | April 9, 2013 | Reply

  3. Dear D.B. Halling,

    To be clear, I believe all the discussion should relate to “powered, manned airplane flight”. Your prior comment saying “numerous people before Whitehead and the Wright brothers… had achieved powered flight” is misleading, as this article clearly relates to airplane flight. I hope that we are all comparing apples to apples in this respect.

    Of greater importance is your statement that the Wrights invented controlled airplane flight, or at least your inference of it related to their 1899 biplane kite which employed wing warping.

    If you dig a bit deeper you can see that wing warping is, and always has been the poor cousin to the aileron, the former being structurally unsound and therefore of limited utility as airplanes became heavier and faster. The Wrights quietly ditched wing warping around 1915 and switched over to ailerons, which almost all other plane builders also employed by that time.

    In any event, to state or imply that the Wrights historically first invented three-axis flight control is patently wrong. Gliders with rudders and elevators existed decades prior, as did lateral flight control by ailerons, which were clearly described in Matthew Piers Watt Boulton’s 1868 British patent. This was noted publicly several times by C.H. Gibbs-Smith. Boulton’s aileron system was employed in an unmanned glider by Charles Renard who built and flew them in 1871; later in 1904 Robert Esnault-Pelterie personally flew his glider with ailerons.

    Since all three flight controls were created and used before the Wrights were born, its false to state they invented them. That the USPTO gave the Wrights a patent for such in 1906 without having consulted the many references available which would have disqualified their patent application is immaterial to the issue of who actually first invented flight controls. Of equal importance is the mounting evidence supporting Whitehead’s first manned, powered flights of 1901 and 1902. As greater resources become available online to researchers, the prospect of definitive proof of Mr. Whitehead’s priority of manned, powered airplane flight will likely be accomplished.

    Comment by Henry Zilber | July 5, 2013 | Reply

  4. Actually my previous post referred to the 1868 aileron patent of Matthew P.W. Boulton, a British scientist-philosopher, and not to any writings by Mr. Whitehead. Due to the intellectual property convention that the U.S. was a signatory of, patents registered in other countries that were part of the convention applied equally within the US, and vice versa. The USPTO should not have issued a patent to the Wrights due to ample prior invention and multiple patents which had already been rendered to practice -and this was discussed in detail by the aviation historian C.H. Gibbs-Smith. Bouton’s aileron patent was, incidentally, based on his earlier 1864 paper “On Aerial Locomotion”, and images of that patent are viewable on Boulton’s Wikipedia bio. article.

    I hope we can agree that a British aileron patent issued when Wilbur was one year old, and also prior to Orville’s birth, takes priority over the brothers’ experiments and invention of the late 1890s.

    Comment by Henry Zilber | July 5, 2013 | Reply

    • Dear Mr. Zibler,

      Having worked on a number of airplane control surface patents, I can tell you wing warping is not dead or considered inferior to ailerons. However, the materials and control systems at the beginning of aviation did favor ailerons.

      The only information I can find about Matthew Piers Watt Boulton’s “aileron” said he did not understand aerodynamics. Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy of the patent. But to suggest someone invented an aileron, but did not understand aerodynamics is a stretch at best.

      The reason the Wright brothers are given credit by historians for inventing the airplane is because they made the key advances that allowed powered air flight to be practical. From a timeline point of view powered flight took off after the Wright brothers’ advances. The Wright brothers invented numerous advances in powered controlled air flight, see http://www.libraries.wright.edu/special/wright_brothers/patents/. In the real world an airplane is the result of numerous inventions and clearly the Wright brothers provided many of the most critical ones to making air flight possible. The same cannot be said about Whitehead. Every invention in the history of the world is made out of existing known elements. To suggest that some of the elements were individually known before the inventors creation is meaningless. You cannot create something from nothing – it’s called conservation of matter and energy. This is what you are attempting to do. Show that some of the elements of the Wright brothers’ inventions were individually known.

      Another example may help illustrate the point. Did Edison invent the electric light bulb? Well there were arc lamps long before Edison. In fact, Joseph Wilson Swan (English chemist) created a bulb with a partial vacuum with an electric filament that glowed when electricity passed through it. So did Edison invent the light bulb? Well Swan’s light bulb had a low resistance filament and the bulb’s life time was way too short to be practical. Only with Edison’s high resistance filament was electric powered light practical, because low resistance filaments drew too much current and therefore required huge conductors. Each of the elements in Edison’s light bulb were known/existed before his invention, but he clearly is the inventor of the first high resistance incandescent light bulb. He made the key advances that made the light bulb practical. Your research is on flight is cursory and only shows that the Wright brothers are not gods, i.e. they could not crDear Mr. Zibler,

      Having worked on a number of airplane control surface patents, I can tell you wing warping is not dead or considered inferior to ailerons. However, the materials and control systems at the beginning of aviation did favor ailerons.

      The only information I can find about Matthew Piers Watt Boulton’s “aileron” said he did not understand aerodynamics. Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy of the patent. But to suggest someone invented an aileron, but did not understand aerodynamics is a stretch at best.

      The reason the Wright brothers are given credit by historians for inventing the airplane is because they made the key advances that allowed powered air flight to be practical. From a timeline point of view powered flight took off after the Wright brothers’ advances. The Wright brothers invented numerous advances in powered controlled air flight, see http://www.libraries.wright.edu/special/wright_brothers/patents/. In the real world an airplane is the result of numerous inventions and clearly the Wright brothers provided many of the most critical ones to making air flight possible. The same cannot be said about Whitehead. Every invention in the history of the world is made out of existing known elements. To suggest that some of the elements were individually known before the inventors creation is meaningless. You cannot create something from nothing – it’s called conservation of matter and energy. This is what you are attempting to do. Show that some of the elements of the Wright brothers’ inventions were individually known.

      Another example may help illustrate the point. Did Edison invent the electric light bulb? Well there were arc lamps long before Edison. In fact, Joseph Wilson Swan (English chemist) created a bulb with a partial vacuum with an electric filament that glowed when electricity passed through it. So did Edison invent the light bulb? Well Swan’s light bulb had a low resistance filament and the bulb’s life time was way too short to be practical. Only with Edison’s high resistance filament was electric powered light practical, because low resistance filaments drew too much current and therefore required huge conductors. Each of the elements in Edison’s light bulb were known/existed before his invention, but he clearly is the inventor of the first high resistance incandescent light bulb. He made the key advances that made the light bulb practical. Your research is on flight is cursory and only shows that the Wright brothers are not gods, i.e. they could not create something from nothing.
      eate something from nothing.

      Comment by dbhalling | July 8, 2013 | Reply

  5. Hellow again Mr. Halling,

    You appear to be having difficulty viewing Mr. Boulton’s aileron patent. Please look at Wikipedia’s article on “Matthew Piers Watt Boulton” (his father and grandfather have separate articles by the way). You can read the relevant text of the patent and view it within the article.

    I did mention in the Wikipedia article that although Boulton’s “…prescient aileron control system was fully functional, he lacked a detailed understanding of aerodynamics, and an airplane he later designed never flew”. That is factual as the field of aerodynamics as a science did not yet exist, however his explanation of the aileron’s function is complete and accurate if you dismiss the missing formulas. His ailerons would work today without issue.

    While the Wrights did advance the field of aeronautics and aerodynamics in several respects, it can be said said accurately they did NOT invent the three basic flight controls they are commonly credited with.

    Comment by Henry Zilber | July 8, 2013 | Reply

  6. Dear Mr. Zibler,

    The wikipedia article states “In 1906 the Wright brothers obtained a patent, not for the invention of an airplane (which had existed for a number of decades in the form of gliders) but for the invention of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine’s surfaces, including lateral flight control,[59] although rudders, elevators and ailerons had been invented long before their efforts began.”

    I can find new invention on aileraons today, http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2013/0146705.html and http://www.freepatentsonline.com/8371520.html. Are you saying these people did not invent an airleraon .

    I have explained that historians give the Wright brothers credit because they made the break through that was necessary for the airplane to take off as a commercial product. As best I can tell the Wright brothers were the first people to bring all the control surfaces together in one design that actually worked. There patents are more specific and the correct statement would be that they invented what is shown in the claims of their inventions. To suggest that Mr. Whitehead has a better claim from a historians perspective is without merit.

    Comment by dbhalling | July 9, 2013 | Reply

  7. Most aviation historians had little knowledge of Mr. Boulton’s works. Boulton’s life is largely obscure and most of his work in aviation is little known. His Wikipedia article is about the most information on him that you’ll find in one location at this time. I personally didn’t know the extent of his contribution to flight controls until I obtained a copy of his patent (which I added to Wikipedia) around March. A thorough reading of the document convinced me that both Manly and Gibbs-Smith were correct in their assessments of Boulton’s aileron invention. His patent document can’t be denied as not having definitively described the design and function of an elevator flight control. The fact that it was overlooked or ignored by the USPTO is secondary to who actually first patented flight controls.

    That the Wrights succeeded in making their airplanes more refined and commercially viable at a later time is irrelevant to who actually first invented flight controls. Aviation historians will undoubtedly be rewriting many of their texts in the future, not the first time that’s happened. The old saying “History is written by the victors [of a battle]” often applies, and the Wrights, with their access to journalists, capital, lawyers and litigation, eventually prevailed over lesser known aviation pioneers. By the time the Wrights started their glider experiments Boulton was already in his grave several years and hardly in a position to protest the Wrights 1906 patent.

    Historians have now conceded that Columbus was not the first Europeans to discover the New World, and history books have been rewritten in that respect. Historians will also be revisiting aviation firsts as well in the future.

    Comment by Henry Zilber | July 9, 2013 | Reply

  8. Dear Mr. Zibler,

    My reading of Boulton’s patent shows a pair of surfaces at the wing tips. While I do not have the time to model this, I doubt that this would ever work. I asked a pilot/engineer friend of mine who has spent more time on aerodynamics and he agreed this at least would be unstable.

    Unless you can show that what Boulton discovered reads on the claims of the Wright brothers, then you will not convince me or anyone familiar with patent law.

    Comment by dbhalling | July 9, 2013 | Reply

  9. I’m afraid your pilot/engineer friend is unaware that some of the Aerial Experiment Associations first powered aircraft (I believe it was the AEA White Wing) had their ailerons mounted at the wingtips, and their flight controls were not lacking. In any event the patent and its illustrations make no mention of mounting ailerons at the wingtips.

    I see this conversation is merely looping around in circles due to our different philosophical stances on the Wright brothers. The debate has been interesting but inconclusive in that respect. I suggest that you investigate conducting a ‘mock’ patent trial with an impartial panel of judges and advocates for both the Wrights and Mr. Boulton, to see if the brothers’ 1906 patent would stand up in the face of all the facts related to prior flight control inventions. Most of those facts were unavailable at the turn of the 20th century, which may be the reason the brothers were granted the patent they received. The National Geographic Society may possibly be willing to cover the costs if they picked up the broadcast rights of the trail’s documentary.

    Comment by Henry Zilber | July 9, 2013 | Reply

  10. […] Wright Brothers Didn't Invent the Airplane and Edison Didn't Invent … This entry was posted in AUTOMOBILES and tagged Airplane, Brothers, Invented, They, Wright on August 19, 2013 by ADMIN. […]

    Pingback by The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane | WWW.INFOPAGESHUB.COM | August 19, 2013 | Reply

  11. “the brothers only “glided” off Kill Devil Hill that day. Their first real flight came on May 6, 1908”, Alpheus W. Drinkwater, telegraph operator

    “Wilbur and Orville Wright are credited with making their first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine on Dec. 17, 1903. But Alpheus W. Drinkwater, 76 years old, who sent the telegraph message ushering in the air age, said the brothers only “glided” off Kill Devil Hill that day. Their first real flight came on May 6, 1908, he said.” Source: New York Times, Dec. 17, 1951.

    see:
    http://wright-brothers.wikidot.com

    The credibility of the Wright brothers is very low. There is simply no evidence they flew on December 17, 1903 and a mountain of evidences they did not fly.

    Comment by Klaus | May 3, 2014 | Reply

  12. What isimportant is that the Wright brother’s were the first to create lateral control surfaces without which the airplane never been practical.

    Comment by dbhalling | May 3, 2014 | Reply


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