David Warren casts his thoughts into the air, but a hundred years ago the Wright Brothers’ lawyers would have been doing their legal damnedest to bring him back down to earth in a hurry:
Work on powered, controlled flight in the United States was far behind that in France, or England, but fell farther behind thanks to the Wright brothers. Fixated on the problem of converting invention into wealth, they pursued rival aviators around the USA with teams of lawyers. Their numerous, voluminous, cumbersome lawsuits were based on often fanciful patent claims, emerging from their own intensely secretive research.
One thinks for instance of the great aviator, Louis Paulhan (first to fly London to Manchester), who arrived with two Blériot monoplanes and two Farman biplanes to give flying demonstrations across the USA. Amazed at the workings of the American judicial system, but ignoring legal injunctions to prevent them from flying their machines, they took every prize at the Los Angeles Air Meet in January 1910, setting new records for altitude and endurance.
The Wrights were present, there as elsewhere, though never competing. They and their gaggle of lawyers followed Paulhan and the other foreigners around the country, serving them with process papers, and demanding unbelievably huge sums to call off their dogs, in vile and obvious attempts at extortion. And then they’d hit the local impresarios with additional suits to impound all the cash from ticket sales, &c. Truly: vicious and contemptible men.
To avoid fines or imprisonment in backwoods American jurisdictions, the visitors took to giving their demonstrations entirely for free, but still the lawsuits kept coming. Finally they gave up and went home.
And there’s even a maple-flavoured sidelight in the story:
Part of the reason for Canada’s early advances in aviation (first flight of the Silver Dart at Baddeck in Cape Breton, with its ingenious ailerons, &c) was the migration of American inventors, such as the brilliant motor-mechanic Glenn Curtiss, to safe territory away from the corrupt and unpredictable U.S. courts.
This, I suspect, was among the reasons that the spectacularly inventive Scotchman, Alexander Graham Bell, re-located from his grand mansion in Washington, DC. At first he went north, back to Canada (where he had settled before), only for the summers; but soon he was staying through the winters, too. Not only in flight, but in all the many other areas of his pioneering work (he invented the telephone, &c), he was afflicted with lawsuits from American cranks, with those dollar signs twirling in their eyes and the slick lawyers lining up behind them, ready to exploit a patent regime wide open to political manipulation. For apart from the beauty of the Bras d’Or landscape, Bell was back under the protection of British Common Law.