Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies

The subtitle to Lawrence Goldstone's (Lefty: An American Odyssey) Birdmen aptly uses the word "battle." The Wright brothers are American legends; they were, after all, the first to travel in controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight, on December 14, 1903. But few know of rival flight pioneer Glenn Curtiss. Goldstone's masterpiece of aviation history reveals a personal and legal battle that slowed the progress of manned flight as the three fought for preeminence.

Goldstone begins with a succinct preamble to Orville's historic flight (Which of the Wright brothers was the first to fly? Orville. They tossed for it.) by filling us in on those who had previously tried to fly but failed. Captain Tom Baldwin's motor-powered balloon/airship was a hit for a while, while others had some success with gliders--including the Wright brothers, after first mastering bicycle mechanics. But how to affix a motor to a glider and then fly? The brothers' brilliant invention of the wind tunnel and the aerodynamic data it provided was crucial. Meanwhile, Curtiss, in upstate New York, was experimenting with motorcycles, and developed a light, powerful engine that was key in lifting planes.

Goldstone goes on to tell the gripping story of the many "battles" between the brothers and Curtiss. They fought to be the first to master powered flight, then to sell the planes, interest the military and secure patents. Genius inventor Wilbur and brilliant craftsman Curtiss also went toe-to-toe in a lengthy legal dispute. This is a fascinating tale well told. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

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