The Patent Wars – Part 2, Wilbur Dies

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Patent Wars

The Wrights’ battle to defend their patent at home and abroad was having marginal success. The courts tended to support the Wrights in their primacy claim but would withhold their final decision while the defendant’s lawyers managed to buy time by asking for further study. In the meantime their clients were free to pursue business as usual.

The defendants used two strategies. One was to claim “prior disclosure,” claiming disclosures by Chanute and Wilbur Wright. The other strategy was to claim “anticipation” by early pioneers such as Louis-Pierre Mouillard.

As an example of the latter, the French claimed that Mouillard was the true father of wingwarping. The truth of the matter is that Mouillard’s plan was to use a form of wing twisting to slow the wing on one side relative to the other for the purpose of steering in a flat turn. He had no notion of the Wright system of a coordinated turn using the tail and twisting of wings. Mouillard’s glider didn’t even have a tail.

The French Tribunal issued a statement that seemed to support the Wrights but then created a loophole that set up a panel of three aeronautical authorities that were to determine whether the Wright patent had been “anticipated” by others.

In Germany, the German patent office declared that the Wright patent was invalid because of “prior disclosure.”

They cited Octave Chanute’s speech in Paris in April 1903 to the Aero-Club de France in which he talked about the Wright glider experiments of 1900-02, and Wilbur’s speech to the Western Society of Engineers after the Wrights’ glider experiments of 1901.

The German arguments were without merit. Chanute didn’t understand the intricacies of the Wrights’ flight control system and couldn’t therefore have revealed them.

Chanute was involved in an interview that didn’t help the Wrights’ cause. He was quoted in a publication, Aeronautics, the year before that he thought “the Wrights have made a blunder by bringing suit at this time.” He added that he didn’t think “that the courts will hold that the principle underlying warping tips can be patented.” This later statement is another indication that he didn’t understand the Wright control system.

This dispute marred a long friendship between the Wrights and Chanute. (Archives: Chanute – Friendship Flies into Stall)

As to Wilbur’s 1901 speech, the Wrights at the time of Wilbur’s speech had not perfected their control system. The most significant aspect of this speech was Wilbur’s suggestion that Lilienthal’s lift and drag tables were wrong (which they were).

The Wrights appealed the German decision, but to no avail.

It was now apparent that the patent suits were terribly time consuming for Orville and Wilbur. It was especially tough on Wilbur who was the brother actively participating in the court battles at home and abroad.

He was an effective witness, using his knowledge and photographic memory to perform a masterful job of explaining the technical complexities of their patent. His testimony resembled a college seminar on the principles of aeronautical engineering. His students were the judges and lawyers.

However, the trials were not fun. He detested the legal conflict with its ritualistic absurdities and delays. The time demands and travel were becoming an increasing burden.

A number of nuisance suits against the Wrights didn’t help. The publicity generated by the patent wars encouraged a number of these suits against the brothers that were dismissed, but still required time and effort.

One such suit was from an Erastus Winkley who held a patent for an automatic control device for sewing machines. He asserted that the Wrights had stolen his idea for use on their airplane.

Wilbur sarcastically commented, “It is rather amusing, after been called fools and fakers for six or eight years, to find now that people knew exactly how to fly all the time.”

By the end of 1911 and 1912, two tragic events occurred. First, because the patent war had diverted the Wrights attention away from their airplane business, they were slowly but surely losing the technology lead to their competitors that was once as much as five-years.

Second, the strain on Wilbur began to have adverse effects on his health. He had looked tired for some time. Then, while in Boston in late April 1912, he became very ill. Wilbur attributed his sickness to some fish that he had eaten at a Boston hotel. On his return he felt better but than shortly after his return, he developed a fever that persisted for several days and his overall condition worsened.

On May 8, Dr. Daniel B. Conklin diagnosed typhoid fever. Orville had typhoid fever in 1896 from contaminated well water in their bicycle shop. He recovered, but the family remembers how bad that bout had been. Eighty to ninety percent of people die from the disease because there was no cure at that time.

Wilbur lapsed into unconsciousness and died quietly at 3:15 in the morning on May 30, despite the best that Dr. Conklin and two other doctors called in could do. His father, three brothers and sister were at his bedside. He was 45 years old.

Twenty-five thousand mourners filed past his coffin before the simple funeral service began in the First Presbyterian Church in Dayton on June 1. There was no music in the 20-minute service. The pastor read scriptural messages and an overview of Wilbur’s career written by Reuchlin (older brother). A friend of Wilbur from Indiana read Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord.”

Interment was in a private burial at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton. Church Bells tolled at 3:30 in the afternoon while all activity in the city came to halt for ninety minutes.

Bishop Wright eloquently paid tribute to his son: “A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self reliance and a great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died.”

Orville and Katharine felt the lost of Wilbur the most because they had been “buddies” since childhood. Brother and sister became even closer after Wilbur’s death and resolved to carry on Wilbur’s fight in the patent wars. This was a fight that had absorbed Wilbur for the last two years of his life and they believed it had contributed to his death.

Previous post:

Next post: