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Book Review: Unlocking The Sky January 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Book Reviews.
Tags: , ,

Everyone knows the story of the first airplane flight: working tirelessly in their Ohio bicycle shop, Orville and Wilbur Wright develop the first modern airplane, which they successfully fly on the coast of North Carolina in December of 1903.  They go on to refine their design and earn their rightful place as the fathers of modern aviation.

Right? Wrong.  Following their initial success, the reclusive Wrights continued their work in Ohio but shared absolutely nothing with fellow aviators of the day.  Although the Wrights borrowed extensively from those who preceded them, they spent the rest of their lives litigating against anyone who dared to build any other aircraft.  Their secretive nature impeded early aircraft development and nearly ruined the true father of modern aviation, Glenn Curtiss.

Seth Shulman shares the story of Glenn Curtiss in Unlocking The Sky. Detailed and well-written, the book recounts a crucial phase of modern technology in an accessible and compelling fashion.  Truthfully, the book is hard to put down and is easily read in an evening or two.

Glenn Curtiss began his career as a motorcycle designer, building fast small engines that propelled him to a world land speed record of 136 MPH in 1907.  At that time, lightweight engines were the real key to aviation success, delivering enough thrust to push early inefficient aircraft into the sky.  With no formal education, Glenn Curtiss found himself designing and building the first modern aircraft, far exceeding the achievements of the Wright brothers.  He made the first publicly announced (and witnessed) flight in 1908, covering a kilometer before a panel of judges, and set the world speed record in Rheims, France a year later in 1909.

His achievements incensed the Wrights, and they spent the rest of their lives trying to destroy Curtiss.  Using a few patents that had been inappropriately interpreted by the courts, the Wrights sought to bankrupt Curtiss and regain control of aircraft development throughout the world.  The Wrights went as far as to force the Smithsonian to remove references to Curtiss from their history of aviation as a prerequisite to displaying the Wright Flyer in the museum.  (The Flyer was initially displayed in the British Royal Museum for years until the Smithsonian acquiesced to Orville Wright’s demands.)

Beyond the excitement of early aviation and the drama of the Wright litigation, Shulman’s book offers other lessons to modern developers one hundred years later.  Although Shulman did not set out to write a book about open versus proprietary software development, anyone versed in the field cannot help but draw conclusions between the distressing behavior of the Wrights and the open, collaborative nature of Curtiss.  Curtiss believed in sharing everything he learned so that the dream of manned flight would be realized and enhanced.  The Wrights sought to contgrol and protect even the smallest details of their airplanes to extract as much profit as possible.

Certainly, the Wrights represent the most restrictive approach to technical development.  Curtiss, while making seminal contributions to the field of aviation, never fully capitalized on the value of his inventions.  Readers seeking to find a happy medium between the two will certainly enjoy learning more about early aviation as they read this compelling, fascinating book.


1. Dan Folwick - January 19, 2009

Chuck, Interesting review. I will seek the book out.
Is there a similar occurance in the IT world? Could there be a similar sense of “professional jealousy” that takes away from the advancement of the field for the greater good?

I’m sure that there are some stories out there.

Dan Folwick

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