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Monday, July 30, 2018

Adoption of disruptive technologies: Lessons from history, Part II

In Part I, I described how Studebaker successfully made the transition from being the largest maker of wagons in the US to a successful car manufacturer (at least until 1966). In Part II, I want to describe the Curtiss and Wright companies as they competed to develop the modern aviation business.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Glenn Curtiss operated a motorcycle factory in Hammondsport, NY, where a museum stands today in his memory. The museum is well worth a stop if you are in the area; allow at least three hours as the 60 minute documentary is well worth the time. It is also possible to visit the restoration shop out back where a WWII fighter is currently being rebuilt.

WWII fighter rescued from the bottom of a lake and undergoing restoration in the museum workshop. 
Ask anyone who invented the airplane, and the answer will be the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Certainly they developed an understanding of forces acting on a wing, and how to control those forces, well beyond what any other person or company was capable of in the years from 1900 to their first flight in 1903 and the granting of their patent on control methods in 1906. They were excellent experimenters and craftsmen, and while the patent proved to be overly broad, it was well deserved.
Glenn Curtiss managed 136.7 mph on this 4.4 litre, V8 motorcycle in 1907. The record stood until 1930. 

1907 Curtiss.  

However, others were perhaps more adept at commercialisation. Glenn Curtiss was one such pioneer, an engineer but also what we would recognise today as an entrepreneur. Initially a builder of bicycles and motorcycles, he built more and more successful airplanes, winning the prestigious Gordon Bennett race in France in 1909. (The Wrights did not enter, but two independent pilots entered Wright planes; neither won any awards). By 1910 he was working in San Diego with the US Navy at launching and landing airplanes on aircraft decks.

In this same period, the Wrights continued to build prototypes and small numbers of commercial planes while engaging in a nasty patent battle with Curtiss. While the Wrights were careful experimenters, it would seem they were not moving as quickly as Curtiss in commercialising, relying instead on their patent and plenty of legal strong-arm tactics to maintain their advantage. The issue addressed by the Wright patent was the method of controlling the wing surface; the patent, which was broad, was interpreted by the courts as describing any control mechanism, not just the method the Wrights developed of warping the wing structure to change the wing profile. Curtiss came up with a method of changing wing characteristics using movable ailerons, which are much closer to modern flaps and other movable parts than the flexing of an entire wing structure. Unfortunately in 1914 a court ruled that the Wright patent covered any method of controlling flight surfaces, and Curtiss was forced to cease operations.

In 1916, Orville Wright retired and sold his interest in the patent to Wright-Martin Corporation, for approximately $1 million. (Wilbur had passed away in 1912). Eager to recoup the cost of the patent, Wright-Martin continued the legal battles. By 1916, the only new Wright plane was a single prototype, and while Curtiss was capable of producing saleable airplanes at close to commercial scale, he was effectively out of business. As a result airplane development in the US had stalled, and the US had no airplanes for the war effort. In 1917, the US government forced all aviation patent holders to share their patents in a pool, and to pay a membership fee to participate in the pool; most proceeds went to Wright and Curtiss, who also had a number of patents of his own. The goal was to get airplanes built, using best available technologies, and stop the legal squabbles. Wikipedia claims no American airplanes were used in WWI, but the Curtiss museum claims that US-made planes were indeed used in WWI, and that they were all built by Curtiss. In any case it is clear that most if not all airplanes used in WWI were of European manufacture, in many cases in violation of the Wright patent as interpreted by American judges.

Replica of the Curtiss America.

Replica of the Curtiss America, designed in 1914 to win a 10,000 pound sterling award offered by the London Daily Mail for the first trans-Atlantic crossing. The eruption of WWI  prevented the attempt and the plane was sold to England for use as a submarine spotter. This replica was built in Hammondsport by volunteers and was first flown in 2008. 
Curtiss America cockpit.

The patent pool was not meant to last beyond the end of the war, but manufacturers did not resume legal hostilities in 1918, so the patent war came to an end with the end of World War I. Ironically, the Wright and Curtiss companies merged in 1929 to form Curtiss-Wright, which still operates today. To his dying day, Wright felt that the Wright name should have come first.

So what can we learn from this? First, a patent that stifles innovation is a problem for all. The US aviation industry was held back by this nasty little feud, and no one really gained from it (except, perhaps, the lawyers). Second, patents can have unexpected side effects, especially in the case of new or emerging industries where the full importance of something may not be fully understood until later. Many technologies in use today work the way they do for reasons that have nothing to do with adoption of the 'best' technology, but because one side won a legal battle, or had better marketing or better licensing terms. (VHS versus Beta, anyone?). Third, the experimenter who does superb ground-breaking work needs to be recognised and encouraged, but the skills of the entrepreneur in getting things built quickly and efficiently is equally critical in getting a new industry up and onto its feet.

Oh, and the museum has lots more: wooden boats, motorcycles, cars, weapons and other bits from the dawn of the 20th century. Plus the town of Hammondsport is delightful. Drop in!

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