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The Wright Brothers File Their First ‘Flying Machine’ Patent

Today on March 23, 1903, the Wright Brothers unsuccessfully filed their first patent for the 'flying machine.'

Orville and Wilbur Wright are perhaps the two most famous brothers in American history. The Wright Brothers are generally credited with inventing the first airplane—while some simply credit them with being the first to patent it successfully. In 1902, the two aviation pioneers conducted several experiments and eventually succeeded in controlling a glider across all three axes of the flight—pitch, roll, and yaw. Most importantly, they discovered how to simultaneously use roll and yaw controls to achieve a forward-elevated movement. On March 23, 1903, they finally wrote and filed their first patent but without any expert legal support. The United States Patent Office swiftly denied their initial attempt.

Later that year, on December 17, the Wright Brothers finally achieved a major milestone by successfully making four brief flights—one of which lasted for 59 seconds and reached 852 feet. The next year, they hired a professional patent attorney in Ohio. Three years later, the brothers were finally granted U.S. Patent #821,393 on May 22, 1906. From that moment on, Orville and Wilbur aggressively defended their patent and sued several domestic and foreign aviation companies along with independent inventors. Their most notable rival was a fellow American aviation pioneer, Glenn Curtiss—a man who they famously litigated against for licensing fees.

Wilbur, the elder of the two brothers, was the first to become airborne after winning a coin toss competition with Orville. Interestingly, the Wright Brothers only ever flew once together. From a young age, their father had made them promise to fly separately in case of a fatal accident. Ironically, they attributed their interest in aviation to a small helicopter toy that their father brought back from France. Throughout their career, the Wright Brothers always shared credit for their innovations and maintained a close relationship. However, it was Wilbur who was known to be the more astute business and operational leader—and later serving as the president of the Wright Company.

In 1916, Wilbur passed away, and Orville decided to retire not long after. He subsequently sold the rights to their patent to the Wright-Martin Corporation. Nevertheless, the patent wars continued between several U.S. aviation companies, which largely hampered the industry's initial growth and development. In fact, American pilots were forced to use more advanced European manufactured planes during World War I. Today, Ohio and North Carolina continue to fight over the legacy of the Wright Brothers. As their experiments were split between the two states, they both claim their accomplishments as their own. Ohio dubs itself as the "Birthplace of Aviation" while North Carolina license plates read "First In Flight."


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