Upstate New York used to be known as the “Burnt Over District.” In the days of the “Second Great Awakening,” many new religions cropped up in this region—some to die out shortly, and others eventually to produce presidential contenders. It was also the region that would be the home base of Glenn Curtiss, one of the true innovators in aviation. My wife and I just finished reading Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone. The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies accurately sums up the contents. This is the story of how we learned to fly. From as long ago as people could abstract from the fact that birds fly, and we can’t, people have yearned for the skies. We are heavy, earth-bound creatures with the wrong musculature to support wings. Goldstone takes us through the early days—just last century—when heavier than air flight began to look promising. We all know that the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, invented the first workable airplane. The story, however, is much more complex than that.
No doubt the Wrights hit upon the keys to flight first. They knew and met with Glenn Curtiss, who quickly took off ahead of them in innovation. What Birdmen reveals is that the Wrights were PKs. You know, preacher’s kids. Their father was a strict and dour clergyman of the ironically named United Brethren in Christ. Feeling his outlook had been wronged, Milton Wright employed his sons in a lengthy legal battle to gain control of his church. Indeed, Wilbur Wright would sometimes put his experimentations or business pursuits on hold to go and help his father wrangle with the righteous. Theirs was a religion that took no prisoners.
My ancestors grew up around the Hammondsport area and some of them knew Glenn Curtiss (according to family lore). I had always wondered why there was so much fighting among fliers when the real enemy was the steadfast grip the earth has on us all. We were Curtiss people. Sensing that Curtiss had infringed their copyright, the Wright brothers, after making history, spent the rest of their professional lives dogging Curtiss with legal battles that, Goldstone makes clear, were personal vendettas. Their religion convincing them that they were the righteous being beset by the wicked gave them the fuel to snap at Curtiss’s heels as he went on to innovate many of the technologies still used in flight today. At the epilogue, Goldstone states what had become clear to me from chapter one: the unforgiving religion of the Wrights’ upbringing led to their disappearance from the world of flight innovation. Its is a lesson that all who would soar today should read, mark, and inwardly digest.