My 10-year-old son Dylanger is science obsessed, so we watch a lot of Nova, Mythbusters, and Modern Marvels. He has a new favorite, an 8-part mini-series on National Geographic (and available on Netflix) called American Genius. Dylanger and I spent a lot of time watching the show these last two weekends, and I highly recommend it. It details significant business and scientific rivalries that have shaped our modern world.
Gates vs. Jobs.
Pulitzer vs. Hearst.
The United States vs. Russia in the space race.
And a rivalry I had never heard of, but was the subject of my favorite episode of the series I’ve seen so far.
The Wright brothers vs. Glenn Curtiss
The Wright brothers (pictured below) need no introduction. Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the first successful controlled, manned flight on December 17, 1903. That plane sits in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, which Dylanger and I visited this summer for his 10th birthday.
If you’re a geeky (and he takes that as a compliment) kid like Dylanger, you can’t grow up without knowing who the Wright brothers are.
On the other hand, until last Sunday, I had no idea who Glenn Curtiss was. Like the Wright brothers, Curtiss owned a bicycle shop. He was also one of the first motorcycle manufacturers, and in 1907 set a speed record of more than 130 miles that stood until 1930. As a result of that record he was known for much of his life in the media as “The Fastest Man in the World”.
Here’s a little video that explains the story of Curtiss in more detail:
Curtiss was also known by aviation experts and the military as a better manufacturer of airplanes. His planes flew higher, further, and were more reliable than planes manufactured by the Wrights. He developed technology that allowed planes to take off and land from ship decks, as well as take off and land from water.
These advancements infuriated the Wrights, who had been granted far-reaching patents. The resulting legal struggle, known as the Wright Patent War, ground their company to a halt. Aerial innovation as a whole ground to a near halt in the United States, which allowed Germany to gain an early strategic advantage in World War I.
The legal struggle between the Wrights and Curtiss was vicious, with Curtiss receiving legal assistance from Henry Ford. Wilbur Wright became obsessed with the lawsuit, and many believe the legal battle contributed to his early death at 45, in 1912.
Ultimately the United States government forced the two companies to participate in a patent pool. Ironically, in 1929 the two companies merged, and Curtiss-Wright Corporation is still, to this day, a $2.5 billion dollar aerospace and energy manufacturer.
First-Movers and Progress
Glenn Curtiss was not a “First-Mover”. He built upon the work of others, devising innovative changes that made existing technology better and more reliable. As a result he was the aerospace manufacturer of choice for the US military, and many of the innovations he was responsible for are still used today.
The Wright brothers won most of their legal battles, but by 1915 Wilbur Wright had passed away, and Orville sold the business. Though their image has recovered, the legal battles tarnished their reputation and, had war not forced cooperation, it is entirely possible that the industry would have remained stalled for much longer.
Many of the people we consider history’s most innovative minds were not “first-movers”. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile (he didn’t even invent the assembly line). Steve Jobs didn’t invent personal computers. Bill Gates didn’t invent software. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent social networking.
Glenn Curtiss is one of many innovators who teach us that you don’t need to be first, you just need to be better.
The Wright brothers are one of many that teach us that while you can stall progress for a little while, you can’t stop it. Ultimately better ideas and ways of doing things win. That principle isn’t just restricted to patents and business innovations.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” could also be applied to progress, in all of its forms, including business and technological progress.
That’s why Elon Musk is giving away his patents, and that’s why anyone, including political candidates, who tell us that we can move backward are wrong.
The Wright view—that progress can be halted—is the wrong perspective.
Instead, look toward the horizon, and see what we can do better.
Just like Glenn Curtiss.
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