The first public flight in the United States. The first commercially sold airplane. The remarkable first flight from one American city to another. The first pilot license issued in this country. These were just a few of the milestones in the career of Glenn Hammond Curtiss, perhaps the greatest aviator and aeronautical inventor of all time.
Unlocking the Sky tells his extraordinary story -- a tale of the race to design, refine, and manufacture a manned flying machine that took place in the air, on the ground, on the water, and in the courtrooms of America. Who would be the first to make a workable airplane, and almost as critical, who would control the right to use or sell this revolutionary technology?
While Orville and Wilbur Wright threw a veil of secrecy over their own flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, Curtiss teamed up with engineers in America and abroad, freely exchanging information in an attempt to resolve the most difficult challenges in constructing a reliable and stable airplane. In 1908, Curtiss piloted his groundbreaking June Bug in the first public flight in America. Fiercely jealous, the Wright brothers took to the courts to keep Curtiss and his airplanes out of the sky and off the market.
Unlocking the Sky elevates Curtiss to his rightful place as an all-American hero. Ultimately, the Wright brothers were unsuccessful in their efforts to monopolize the airplane. With plot-twisting interventions from Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Samuel P. Langley, and, of course, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Seth Shulman's gripping narrative captures the dynamism of an era, a time much like our own, dominated by the struggle for control over fast-paced and unsettling technological change. It is a story of invention and adventure that shatters longheld myths about the birth of the airplane and raises profound questions about the way we remember history.
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In the American imagination, Wilbur and Orville Wright are "earnest, young bicycle builders who attacked an age-old technological problem with fresh, ingenious thinking and dedication." There is plenty of truth to this, writes Seth Shulman, but it also obscures an important fact: The first flyers were so secretive and desperate to cash in on their invention that their behavior actually "retarded" the development of aviation. One of their most brutish acts involved a punishing legal fight with Glenn Hammond Curtiss, the inventor of the aileron (wing flaps that stabilize an aircraft in flight), retractable landing gear, pontoons, and much else. Unlocking the Sky suggests that Curtiss deserves at least near-equal billing with the brothers from Dayton. He performed the first public flight in the United States, sold the first commercial airplane, and piloted the first flight from one American city to another. "Curtiss surely belongs in the pantheon of America's greatest entrepreneurial inventors," writes Shulman. Yet he's virtually forgotten today, except by aficionados of aviation history. He comes across as a pioneering hero on these pages--and the Wright brothers as thuggish would-be monopolizers. This may be revisionist history, but it's a history that perhaps could stand revising. --John J. MillerAbout the Author:
Seth Shulman has worked for two decades as a writer and editor specializing in issues of science, technology, and the environment. His work has appeared in Nature, Discover, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Technology Review, and the Atlantic Monthly, among many other publications. He is the author of three books, most recently Owning the Future. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
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