Monday, May 19, 2014

Greed ("Birdmen" by Lawrence Goldstone)

For all the adulation heaped on Orville and Wilbur Wright--the two Midwestern bike-shop owners who flew the first working airplane more than a century ago--history forgets that, beyond their scientific and automotive skills, not to mention a fearless desire to succeed, the two men were also stubborn, selfish assholes. While other aviators of the day were determined to see manned flight realized for the sake of progress--of moving humanity towards horizons both literal and figurative--the Wrights balked at such altruistic ideals and, in patenting aspects of their design, made it almost impossible for others to perfect motorized flight and move the technology forward. In fact, once their achievements at Kitty Hawk were publicized and their patent was certified, their story became one of litigation, greed, obsession, and the failed promise of two otherwise indispensable minds. It's this history--of the Wright's battle for supremacy, especially against fellow inventor and aviator Glenn Curtiss--that dominates most of Birdmen, Lawrence Goldstone's account of how two of the most idolized Americans did more than anyone else to undermine not only worldwide progress but also their own legacies.

Despite their humble beginnings, Orville and Wilbur Wright did not want for wealth. Their Ohio bike shop was not only a prescient idea--in the era before airplanes and the Model T, the bike was serious transportation--but also quite successful, and after their triumph at Kitty Hawk, they could have easily and comfortably lived off the fortune and prestige that came with fame. Public appearances and demonstrations alone would have sufficed, and eventually they could have competed against others for monetary prizes--which, as Goldstone shows in exhausting detail, were not just sizable but plentiful. (Goldstone also shows that the Wright brothers were skilled pilots and could easily have bested their competition.) Had they never manufactured a single plane of their own--had they simply drawn up their designs and passed them around to other aviators and businessmen--they could have lived out the remainder of their days without concern, forever revered by a world that would have forever been in debt to them.

Instead, the Wrights enlisted an attorney who understood patent laws, and in just three years they had built a virtual monopoly on one lone patent, which would require anyone who designed, purchased, or flew airplanes to pay their company a hefty sum, if not become part of their monolith altogether.* It was a ruthless decision on their part, one that was written in such a way as to give the appearance of small copyright claims--on flaps, rudders, and so on, all of them seemingly insignificant parts of the overall design--that, in total, handed over complete control of the entire industry to both men. (After all, without those small bits and pieces, a plane would have been useless.) Unfortunately for the Wrights--but fortunately for everyone else--the long wait allowed others to design, build, and fly their own planes, often improving on the Wrights' own work. By the time the patent--number 821993--became official, their design was already slipping into obsolescence. The Wrights could easily have returned to their workshops--to the beaches of Kitty Hawk, even--and made their own changes, drawing on their skills and insights before their competition could do the same; had they done so, they would have remained important players in the "battle to control the skies." It would have been a beneficial decision for everyone, not just the brothers and their fellow enthusiasts, but once again Orville and Wilbur Wright chose to march in the opposite direction. For the rest of their lives--Orville would die in 1912 at the age of 45, a tragedy Wilbur attributed almost solely to the constant pressures of litigation, and Wilbur himself would pass away a bitter recluse in 1948, at the age of 76--they would haunt court-rooms, make spurious demands for payment, elicit antagonism from the general public without apology or concern for their business' public relations, and travel across Europe fighting foreign manufacturers and governments. And with one small exception--a simple design that Orville did not nurture beyond its conception--neither brother would ever invent again.

More than a century later, we live in an age of streamlined, industrialized innovation, when new ideas do not spring from North Carolina beaches or the workshops of bike repairmen, from suburban garages or the kitchen laboratories of curious teenagers or housewives, but from well-funded and organized movements. These are often funded by millionaires and billionaires, each claiming to be in search of revolutionary ideas to make the world "a better place" and fix the seemingly unfixable, but more often than not their endeavors are tinged with the stink of profit--of capitalism masked as innovation. And while this is far from detrimental--after all, money accelerates any process, and those who actualize the next Big Idea deserve to be justly rewarded--it removes human independence and ingenuity from the procedure, both of which are vital to progress. The Wright brothers were able to create and refine their designs because they had funding, yes, but that assurance allowed them to work on an idea that already existed and to do so independent of any outside influence. Had they not been two bike-shop owners with an idea and had, instead, been two employees in windowless cubicles or on the floor of a multi-acre plant, there can be no guarantee of success. Would they have survived above the noises of the bureaucracy? Would their designs have passed quality control, or would they have faced instant rejections for its flaws? (Their original designs had many.) Would they have even been given credit, or would it have been the "invention" of their superiors and CEO, in much the same way Edison claimed the designs of others as his own?

Right now, there are thousands--possibly even millions--of innovators pushing to realize a dream of their own, most of them much more attuned to their responsibility than the Wrights were. The true questions is, are we doing enough for them--giving them the space, the funding, and the freedom to pioneer--or are attempts at fostering their ideas done selfishly and only for ourselves? Because, as the story of the Wright brothers makes clear, those who create for the sake of the world and those who create for the sake of themselves are often hard to distinguish, and it may just be true that they are--at one point in time--one in the same, liable to tip in either direction, dependent on little more than the winds of the day.

*The Wrights were also assisted in this process by the era's patent laws, which were opaque and favored business over innovation, and a judge who was unapologetically biased towards the two brothers.