Shulman moves on from polemical exposé (Owning the Future: Staking Claims on the Knowledge Frontier, 1999) to polemical biography, profiling a nearly forgotten aviation pioneer whose story proves that even when men were men, there were still lawyers.
The author lets us know immediately where his sentiments lie in the rivalry between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, all three of whom, it seems, parlayed an eighth-grade education about as far as it could go a century ago. Shulman finds Curtiss (1878–1930) to be a true inventor with the heart of a hero, while Orville and Wilbur were so obsessed with nailing down the broadest possible patent benefits stemming from their singular triumph at Kitty Hawk in 1903 that they ultimately spent far more time mounting vituperous litigation to suppress the state of the art than they ever did to advance it. While aspects of that rivalry remain unresolved and controversial to this day, there is no doubt that Curtiss, credited with some 500 inventions that contributed to the rapid evolution of aircraft over three decades, was hounded undeservedly through the entire period by the brothers and their law firms. The author ably evokes an age when innovation was hot in the wind: both Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford had occasion to seek out the school dropout from Hammondsport, New York, the former to collaborate with Curtiss on aviation experiments, the latter to commiserate from experience with his own battle against predatory patent attorneys. With help like this, and the ability to get as much out of a gas-powered reciprocating engine as any man alive in his time, Curtiss persevered, set speed and distance records as his aircraft evolved in capability, invented the seaplane, and even, as part of a prize-winning flight down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City, delivered the first “airmailed” letter.
An effective tribute to an innovator unjustly overshadowed by his litigious peers.