Share This Article

Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies

by Lawrence Goldstone, St. Martin’s Press, N.Y., 2014, $28

Unless you’re already an expert on the litigious era of early flying, when lawsuits were far more important than flight suits, this is a marvelously well-written way to learn about those times. Lawrence Goldstone has combed all the standard reference books on the subject, especially Tom Crouch’s excellent The Bishop’s Boys, and assembled it into a very readable account. He has also done a bit of primary research, which often does not relate directly to the main subject matter. For example, in one footnote he examines the patent controversy over the extraction of aluminum from aluminum oxide. Goldstone does have most of the aviation de tails well in hand, although occasionally he slips up, as when he declares that both biplanes and pusher aircraft would “disappear.”

The important thing is that Goldstone tells this fascinating but too often forgotten story in a fluent, graceful style that adds immensely to its value. Perhaps even more significant, he has distinct views on the Wright brothers that he introduces into his narrative. They are portrayed as difficult men to work with, Wilbur in particular. In Goldstone’s judgment, Wilbur “believed that he was doing God’s work and toiling for the betterment of humanity by pursuing monopoly wealth.” As a result, he “abandoned science” to establish the Wrights’ patent rights, and this “robbed him of decades of his life.”

Goldstone treats Glenn Curtiss much better, although he occasionally presents him in a somewhat questionable light regarding his debt to the Wrights. I believe readers will gain the most from the author’s handling of other stellar figures of the time, including Alexander Graham Bell, Augustus (that rat!) Herring and Captain Tom Baldwin.

Birdmen is an important addition to the growing number of books about aviation intended for general readers. So far, publishers have just scratched the surface of more than a century of aviation history, which means that aspiring authors need only research and write well to find a ready market.


Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.