Book Review Thursday: Birdmen

Birdmen  On December 17, 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright made history with their first-ever power-controlled flight, brief though it was.  At the time the Wright Brothers weren’t the only ones pursuing the elusive feat of engine-powered flight.  This book chronicles the rivalries among the daredevils of that day who would become known as the “Birdmen.”

Not long afterwards the Wrights filed a broadly-worded patent with the intent, no doubt, to garner royalties from anyone who ever built another piece of aircraft from that point forward.  When asked to appear at exhibitions they would demand licensing fees and a share of the profits.  In a way, it was good business practice to protect their invention, but in the end it more or less made them appear to be greedy.

Their chief rival, Glenn Curtiss, was undaunted by their threats of lawsuits.  He had ideas of his own (as did other aeronautical innovators of the day).   Historian Lawrence Goldstone has carefully researched the subject and written a detailed history of both the pre- and post-flight era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not only in America but abroad in Europe.

What quickly becomes apparent is that although the Wrights worked hard to improve their invention over the years, they fell behind in innovation, primarily because they spent so much time in court defending their patent.  The book, however, isn’t just about the rivalry between the Wrights and Curtiss, although a significant portion is devoted to that subject.  With all of the lawsuits brought against fellow aviators and the demands for exorbitant fees, the reputations of Wilbur and Orville Wright suffered, both at home and abroad.  As Goldstone noted, “Wilbur Wright was transformed overnight from hero and adopted son to scoundrel” in his dealings abroad.

There are as many twists and turns to the story as there were innovators and daredevils.  The daredevils have a special place in early aviation history.  Their exhibitions attracted crowds of thousands, at least initially.  The more daring their stunts, the more enthralled were the spectators.

Goldstone also chronicles a four-year period when the luck of many of those stunt pilots ran out.  During that period, one hundred and forty-two pilots crashed their planes and died.  In almost every instance, fans would rush to the scene, not to attend to the pilot, but to grab pieces of the plane for souvenirs.

The book is very detailed, and I have to admit it took awhile for me to get into it.  Some parts of the Wright brothers story I had read in another book I reviewed recently (Washed Away).   Having never heard of the rivalries nor the legal wrangling (which went on for years), I found the book very informative.  If you have an interest in a meticulously researched account of the early days of flight, this book is a must read.

By the way, one of the men who was a part of the exhibition team was Frank Coffyn.  He was profiled in a Surname Saturday article here.

Rating:  ★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



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