This browser is not actively supported anymore. For the best passle experience, we strongly recommend you upgrade your browser.
Insights Insights
| 2 minutes read

The Wright Brothers' Patent for the "Flying Machine"

Our next historical patent in this series is U.S. Patent No. 821,393, filed by Orville and Wilbur Wright on March 23, 1903, about 9 months before their famous, first powered flight

A Flying Machine With One or More Aeroplanes. The invention is described as relating to a particular class of “flying machines” in which the weight is sustained "when one or more aeroplanes are moved through the air edgewise,” as distinguished from other flying machines such as hot air balloons and dirigibles. The brothers explained that “[w]e have used the term ‘aeroplane' in this specification and the appended claims to indicate the supporting surface or supporting surfaces by means of which the machine is sustained in the air.” Eventually, the word for the wing – “aeroplane” (Brit.) or “airplane” (N. Am.) – came to refer to the entire aircraft.

Wing Warping for Controlling Roll (Lateral Balance). The patent claims are directed to a wing warping system that enabled pilots to maintain or restore the machine's lateral balance. Claim 1, for example, recites:

In a flying machine, a normally flat aeroplane having lateral marginal portions capable of movement to different positions above the normal plane of the body of the aeroplane . . . so as to present to the atmosphere different angles of incidence"

The specification explains that by twisting or distorting the aeroplane (one large wing extending on both sides of the machine), “the side of the machine presenting the larger angle of incidence will tend to lift or move upward, and this upward movement will restore the lateral balance of the machine.” Wilbur Wright had observed that birds regain their lateral balance “by a torsion of the tips of the wings." The patent describes a rope and pulley system that allows the machine's aeroplane to mimic this feature. Wing warping was a major advance and was used to control roll until the advent of ailerons (hinged surfaces forming the trailing edge of each wing) years later.

A “Pioneering Invention." In 1909, three years after their patent issued, the Wright brothers formed, and sold the patent to, the Wright Company. The Wright Company then waged a patent war against aircraft manufacturers (such as Curtiss), aviators, and those that promoted or sponsored flying exhibitions (which was not good for public relations when exhibitions were cancelled). The Wright Company benefited from an early ruling finding that the patent protected a “pioneering invention” in the field of aviation. At the time, the pioneering invention doctrine gave broad interpretation to patents deemed to cover a pioneering invention, as opposed to a mere (though patentable) improvement. (I think of this as similar to the greater protection afforded to trademarks deemed “famous” under the Lanham Act). As a result, the Wright Company's patent was broadly construed to protect gliders as well as powered airplanes (during prosecution, the patent application was initially interpreted as applicable only to gliders) and broad combinations of wing warping and a movable, vertical rudder. 

NASA's Tributes. Unrelated to the patent, I thought it was interesting that NASA included pieces of wing fabric from the Wright's 1903 machine on the Eagle lunar module that flew Neil Armstrong to the Moon and on the Ingenuity helicopter that flew on Mars.

Subscribe to Taylor English Insights by author and/or topic here.


intellectual property, ip litigation, ip patent, technology, aviation, nixon_coby, insights