I never knew how despised the Wright brothers were. That was the most startling revelation of researching Chasing Icarus. No one liked Wilbur and Orville in those extraordinary pioneer days of aviation. And it wasn’t down to envy. It was the Wrights’ bloody-minded belief and paranoiac greed that whipped up a storm of resentment, encapsulated by a newspaper cartoon in 1910 depicting the brothers furiously waving their fists as an airplane passing overhead and shouting ‘Keep out of my air!’
The Wrights believed that as the inventors of the airplane any other flying machine was a breach of their patent. So in the years following 1903 they spent as much time in court as they did in the workroom; serving injunctions on aviators from around the world.
The great Frenchman Louis Paulhan was grounded by the Wrights’ legal team, and the dashing Englishman Claude Grahame-White refused to fly in the USA in case Orville and Wilbur should sue him. Yet the bitterest battle fought by the Wrights was against their fellow American, Glenn Curtiss, a struggle that lasted years and was only resolved in 1917 when both sides agreed to put aside their differences and work together to manufacture aircraft for the military.
Ironically, the Wrights’ legal tenacity proved their downfall in the race to achieve supremacy in the aviation world. As one newspaper wrote in 1910, the failure of the Wrights’ machine to win any of that year’s international air races proved that ‘high noon had come and gone in the careers of the Wright brothers’. Neither Orville nor Wilbur believed that the future of the airplane lay in metal monoplanes; for them the wooden biplane was king. History proved them wrong.