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Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

History Lessons: Thomas Alva, Wilbur, Orville, Patents & You

August 24th, 2017 by Peggy Aycinena

Last month it was a visit to Thomas Alva Edison’s labs and manufacturing headquarters
in West Orange, New Jersey, and this month it was a 20-hour road trip to see the eclipse in rural Oregon, accompanied by a books-on-tape rendition of “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough. These two things together – the visit and the road trip – brought into sharp focus the historical impact of the patent process on innovation and technology in the U.S.

Edison had only a grade-school education, yet his inventiveness and fierce sense of competition drove him to create not only world-changing technologies on his own, but to establish a revolutionary full-fledged R&D facility in West Orange [moved from its original location in Menlo Park] and the means by which ideas emanating from those labs could be commercialized and ramped to volume manufacturing. He wanted to own the entire process, from invention to final sale, and in many areas of science and engineering he did just that.

The Thomas Edison National Park is really just a series of wooden buildings where breakthroughs in the electric light bulb, and subsequent establishment of a power-distribution industry, as well as ground-breaking developments in recording sound, in particular the human voice, were pursued in lock-step with equally revolutionary developments in motion picture engineering. In fact, it was on this day in 1891 that Edison patented the Kinetograph, his term for a motion picture camera.

Of course, the technology around cameras had seen explosive growth for over 50 years by 1891, but it was Edison who, among others, saw the potential for stringing together a series of photographic images to create a sense of motion for the viewer, and aggressively worked to make a commercial reality out of that potential.

At the Edison National Park today, you can see his original projection shed – the first movie theater – a pretty rudimentary affair. No popcorn, soft drinks, or loge seating. Nonetheless, Edison’s invention, created in conjunction with his colleagues and staff of research engineers, pushed the envelope and received the patent.

An extraordinary take-away from visiting Edison’s labs in New Jersey is that his company also made inroads in mining, metallurgy, material science, fluoroscopy – something that I was familiar even as a child as my father was a radiologist and an expert in fluoroscopy – and the production of a host of household devices that ran off the electricity that Edison helped pipe into the homes of America.

Thomas Edison was born in 1857 and lived until 1931. He was a workaholic to the end of his life, a perfectionist, an avid reader, a polymath, was supremely confident, and considered investors and world-renowned politicians as peers, and often as friends.

He also had many enemies – competitors and those who objected to his obsessive need to patent his inventions, or those produced by his enormous staff of researchers. Edison wanted the fruits of his labor, and those of his lab – the profits from all this prolific creativity – to come to him and his investors.

So that was July’s history lesson.

Then it was August, and time for the Wright Brothers.

Wilbur Wright lived from 1867 to 1912, Orville Wright from 1871 to 1948. Only a handful of years younger than the increasingly famous, and increasingly wealthy Thomas Edison, the labors of the Wright brothers were equally intense and equally successful. But in only one realm – manned flight.

Listening to David McCullough read his book about the brothers, while exploring the arid, ascetic lands of the High Desert of Oregon this week in search of the solar eclipse, was life imitating art. The Wright brothers lived ascetic lives in pursuit of their obsession – sustained controlled manned flight.

They were workaholics, avid readers, polymaths – particularly Wilbur – supremely confident, despite some dramatic setbacks, in the feasibility of their goal, and eventually knew investors and world-renowned politicians, presidents and crowned heads, as peers and often as friends.

Although lacking some of the hubris of Edison, the Wright brothers also fought ferociously through the patent process to protect the crown jewels of their life’s work, their aeroplane.

Of course, the technology around manned glider flight had been on an explosive course of innovation for over 50 years, but it was Orville and Wilbur who – through dogged, steady, methodical, scientifically based trial and error, including a home-brew wind tunnel kitted out with a variety of wing configurations – succeeded in producing a motorized airborne vehicle which they could control from take-off to landing – the first time in December 1903 – using a variety of Wright-developed innovations around the concepts of roll-pitch-yaw, a dynamically configurable airfoil, and an engine that would provide the power to remain aloft for astonishing amounts of time.

And it was the Wright Brothers who, along with their very small team of loyal researchers and a few investors, aggressively worked to make a commercial reality out of the potential of their flying machine. They labored long and hard to sell their invention to a variety of possible customers in the U.S. and Europe, and eventually found great commercial success – and some very costly and vicious patent battles.

There are some astonishing similarities between Thomas Alva and the Wright Brothers. Edison came from humble roots, worked as a telegraph operator and grew his career from there, but as a teen already was innovating as a publisher of a small newspaper. Also not college-educated, Orville and Wilbur manufactured bicycles for a living, but only after having had success in their teens publishing a small local newspaper.

And just as Edison developed expertise across a variety of disciplines, the Wright Brothers became experts in photography – something they felt was important to capture each stage of their years-long efforts to solve the ‘flight problem’ – and were also master carpenters, machinists, mechanical engineers, aviation theorists, and rigorously self-taught glider, and eventually motorized flight machine, pilots.

Taken together, the stories of Edison and the Wright Brothers – as experienced this summer in New Jersey and on the road in Oregon – offer a detailed history lesson in the integration of innovation with legal protections of the commercial results of those innovations.

And the morals to these very American stories, now over 100 years old? There are at least five:

1) Accept the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum. If you think you’re the only one working in a technology sector, stop thinking that immediately.

2) The joy of the thing is in the creation. But the enjoyment of the outcome is in the protection offered through the patents that you must put in place as soon as the simple joy of creation is over.

3) Patent your ideas. Massively patent your ideas. And expect your patents to be challenged in the courts and in the market place, simultaneously.

4) Expect to be bruised – perhaps even bloodied and bruised – by the inevitable battle that will ensue as you fight to keep those patent protections in place.

5) Fight to the last fiber of your being against your competition, but know that in the end, you’ll probably wind up merging with them. Accept it, and expect to grieve forever more.

Or get over it, and live to create again.


Footnotes …

* Thomas Alva Edison had 1093 U.S. patents across a range of technologies, and 2332 patents around the world.

* Orville and Wilbur Wright had 1 U.S. patent [No. 821,393]. It was for their flying machine.

Photos …

* The rustic hut where Thomas Edison and team projected a moving picture, now a part of the Thomas Edison National Park in West Orange, New Jersey.

* The ascetic beauty of the John Day Fossil Beds National Park in Eastern Oregon.


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2 Responses to “History Lessons: Thomas Alva, Wilbur, Orville, Patents & You”

  1. Dennis Brophy Dennis Brophy says:

    Peggy, It is wonderful to learn you enjoyed your Eclipse 2017 visit to Oregon! It was a great day to watch the eclipse. Patent stories are seldom simple. Indeed, to report on Wright brothers’ struggle and patent wars is eclipsed by the story of the “gentle hand” of government to form what is really a patent pool for the war effort (that’s World War I). At the time, building new airplanes – that were in dire need – was block the Wrights and another patent holder. In the end they had to consent to competitive cooperation. I wonder if there is a 6th moral to the story?

    • Dennis, I totally agree that the patent saga around the development of the aeroplane quickly became embroiled in the run-up to World War I. However, when Wilbur and Orville began their work, it was still the 19th century and the 1914 onset of war was many years away — albeit, Langley and the Smithsonian were actively seeking a flying machine at the turn of the century, most likely for military purposes. And certainly the Wrights knew early on that they were in a pitched battle with Glenn Curtis and Alexander Graham Bell, and the emphasis there was definitely military. Given all that, what would you call the 6th moral to the story? Re: Oregon — you’ve got a great state. Thanks for opening your doors for us hundreds of thousands of eclipse chasers!

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