Birdmen

Lawrence Goldstone tells the story of the decade when men took to the air.

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    Birdmen,
    by Lawrence Goldstone,
    Random House,
    448 pp.
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Humanity has been fascinated with flight since the beginning of civilization, an obsession that has manifested itself in a variety of ways, from depictions of Christian angels with wings sprouting out of their backs to Roman slaves who were forced to jump to their deaths by flight-obsessed scientists. In Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies, author Lawrence Goldstone paints a picture of the decade when that ancient ambition first became a reality and humanity actually took to the skies.

The central story in Goldstone’s book revolves around the rivalry between the Wright brothers and fellow aviation entrepreneur Glenn Curtiss, a rivalry that eventually degenerated into a quest for revenge. In the years following their early flight experiments at Kitty Hawk, the moralistic, uptight Wright brothers waged a legal war against the other enthusiastic inventors and entrepreneurs in the burgeoning field of aviation. The brothers sought a monopoly for their flying systems, requesting licensing fees and 20 percent of the purchase price of every airplane sold. But Wilbur died during the legal battle, working himself into an early grave due to his obsession with exacting retribution from Curtiss. When Orville finally won legal rights to those repayments, he only enforced the policy on Curtiss, claiming that Curtiss’s actions drove Wilbur to his death. 

Goldstone argues that this cutthroat patent war and the Wrights’ attempts to quash competition effectively destroyed American aviation for several years – for example, during World War I, no American airplane design was deemed effective for military flying. Goldstone argues that even though some of the Wrights’ concerns may have been valid, both Curtiss, an innovator and a master builder, and the Wrights, visionary architects, were necessary to move the field forward.

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Any scientific history is partially the history of the larger-than-life personalities that shaped the field. In Goldstone’s book, the personalities of the Wright brothers and Curtiss leap off the page. Curtiss was associated with daredevil flying and stunts, and the Wright brothers with caution and bad showmanship.

But “Birdmen” is also full of personalities and figures that are even more interesting than the Wrights and Curtiss: the daredevil flyers that threw caution to the wind, took to the skies, and performed often-deadly feats. It is these men and women whose stories come to life even more than those of the Wrights and Curtiss: young people spurred by glory to perform tricks that they knew would eventually result in their death.

One such aviator, Lincoln Beachey, told reporters that crowds of eager onlookers came to see his stunts because they were waiting for him to die. He attempted to retire from aviation in 1913, citing the deaths of many acquaintances and fellow aviators in horrible crashes. But he was lured back by the challenge of performing a loop in the air, and eventually ended up drowning in a plane crash. Another daredevil, John Moisant, spontaneously flew from Paris to London with a passenger and became a famous fixture of the American aviation scene until he was killed in a horrific crash in New Orleans. It’s easy for the modern imagination to latch onto these tales of brave and foolish young men and women spurred to the skies against all rationality.

But perhaps the most compelling passages in Goldstone’s book are those that describe the public’s reaction to seeing flying machines. In those years, Americans flocked to exhibitions and competitions across the country to see man fly for the first time. One Times reporter, standing in a crowd watching a race from Battery Park, wrote that the throng around him fell silent as a plane soared overhead, and that “seeing [an airplane fly] was something like meeting a ghost.”

Of course, there was a dark side to the public’s fascination with aviation. As Beachey pointed out, some people attended airshows because of a fascination with the morbid. Whenever an aviator crashed and died, spectators would swarm the wreckage, looking for souvenirs to take away. In one instance, when an aviator crashed at a state fair in Georgia, spectators stole his collar, tie, gloves and cap out of the detritus of his ruined airplane. Also during that time, the US government was beginning to invest in airplanes for military usage, and during World War I, aviators flew in battle for the first time. 

Ultimately, Goldstone’s book is the history of the development of an integral part of the modern world and a fascinating portrayal of how a group of men and women achieved a dream that had captivated humanity for centuries. Modern readers will be intrigued by his portrait of a world where flying was just becoming a reality and where seeing an airplane cutting through the sky overhead was as ethereal and unbelievable as seeing a ghost. 

Emily Cataneo is a Monitor contributor.

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