Back in 2007 I picked up a used book called Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers. Written back in the 70s by Harry Combs, an accomplished pilot, it challenges the commonly held view that the Wright brothers were merely bicycle "tinkerers" who barely stumbled into the air ahead of the competition. Combs describes the two brothers as coming from a close-knit and supportive family who found out through trial and error that all the principles others had "discovered" were wrong. Through genius and talent (and three years of hard work) the brothers figured out the true scientific principles of aerodynamics, became the first in history to achieve true flight (sustained, powered, and controlled), and ushered in the modern age of flying.
Then, in 2008, I found another used book called Unlocking The Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane
by Seth Shulman. Glenn Curtiss was the primary rival of the Wrights, and Shulman portrays him as a series of opposites: shy and unassuming, yet a master PR man always entertaining the press; the "beloved son" of Hammondsport, NY, who frightened and angered everyone by testing noisy contraptions and racing motorcycles around town at breakneck speeds; and an honest and upstanding citizen violating patent laws for the "greater good" of mankind. Shulman spends so much ink attacking the Wrights that he doesn't even manage to adequately describe Curtiss.
The fact is that what happened in December 1903 on the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, NC, was monumental. Wilbur's (and Orville's) genius at solving the problem that had stumped so many others for millennia was truly remarkable. But Lawrence Goldstone portrays them as mere mortals in Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies
- and it isn't always heroic and triumphal. He describes the Wrights as clannish and Wilbur as overbearing, but we see them most through their heavy and frequent use of the legal system. Wilbur sought to monopolize the invention with a broad "pioneering patent" that would have required licensing fees of any who soared on his coattails. And even though Glenn Curtiss soon improved upon the methods of control (developing many of the improvements that are still in use today), he became an especially hated rival and target of the Wright's attacks. The legal storm that arose cast a heavy shadow over the aviation industry in America, and lead to health problems and an early death for Wilbur.
Although it only covers the early years of aviation - from the lead-up to Kitty Hawk and through the first World War - this is a pretty wide-reaching history. (For a book that discusses the subsequent period, see The Aviators.) This was a time when the public's thirst for air shows and events was at its highest and created celebrities of the pilots in the barnstorming circuit. Goldstone profiles not only the Wrights and Curtiss but many other prominent and largely forgotten individuals: early pioneers such as Otto Lillenthal, Samuel Langley, and Octave Chanute who inspired and shared information with the Wrights; visionaries such as Thomas Baldwin who put his faith in balloons and invented the parachute; and scoundrels like Augustus Herring who made a fortune by deception (including selling the information he stole from the Wrights to Curtiss). And of course, there's the daredevils such as Lincoln Beachy, who thrilled audiences with his death-defying stunts - as well as his death.
Unfortunately, I thought the book suffered from a too-wide reach of history. It's an interesting chronicle, but the Wrights are generally cast as greedy villains while Curtiss never became more than a cardboard figure despite his prominent role in nearly everything. While the Combs book was probably accurate but overly-praising, the Shulman book suffered from inaccuracies and too much venom. This book is probably very accurate as well, but it felt like a little too much dirty laundry. (That's my opinion, but the book is generally receiving more positive reviews from others.) I'm not saying a book shouldn't expose the truth even when it's ugly (and I'm not questioning Goldstone's facts or motives), I'm just saying I didn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to. (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)