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The airplane as an open source invention. Peter B. Meyer, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics * *Findings and views are those of the author, not the BLS Session K10: Innovation without patents IEHA, Utrecht Aug 7, 2009. Development of the airplane (heavier than air, with fixed wings).

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The airplane as an open source invention

The airplane as an open source invention

Peter B. Meyer,

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics*

*Findings and views are those of the author, not the BLS

Session K10: Innovation without patents

IEHA, Utrecht

Aug 7, 2009

Development of the airplane heavier than air with fixed wings
Development of the airplane(heavier than air, with fixed wings)

1860s Clubs and journals on “aerial navigation” appear

It’s a niche activity – maybe hopeless, useless, and dangerous

Publications do not refer much to prior work

1894 Survey book by Chanute refers to 190 people/experiments

Increasingly publications refer to prior work.

Many designs were shared openly.

I seek to quantify this activity.

1903 Powered-glider flights by Wright brothers and others

1909 An industry arises

Chanute s 1894 overview progress in flying machines refers to or quotes more than 190 persons
Chanute’s 1894 overview Progress in Flying Machines refers to or quotes more than 190 persons

These are counts of pages referring to the individual.

The people are diverse and international.

They are central to the history of the invention.

Their findings were mostly public.

The airplane as an open source invention

Alphonse Pénaud

Horatio Phillips

Examined shapes for upper and lower surfaces of wings, 1880s and 1890s

Engineer in France, 1870s

Showed importance of tail on model aircraft for stability

Samuel langley

Lawrence Hargrave

Samuel Langley

  • Professor; Smithsonian Institution Director

  • Tested lift and drag of planes on “whirling table” with 30-foot arm

  • 1891: Published Experiments in Aerodynamics

  • Wrote to and visited other experimenters

  • Helps make aviation study legitimate

  • 1896: flew powered model gliders

  • 1903: full size powered gliders

Made box kite findings circa 1894

Presented and published

many papers

Did not patent, on principle.

Otto lilienthal
Otto Lilienthal

  • Founded company making steam engines in Berlin

  • 1860s-80s studied bird wings and experiments

  • 1889: published Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation

  • 1891-6: Flew inspirational hang gliders

Why? “. . . to soar upward and to glide, free as the bird” -- Otto Lilienthal, 1889

Motivations of experimenters
Motivations of experimenters

  • Would like to fly

  • Curiosity, interest in the problem

  • Prestige, recognition

  • Belief in making world a better place

  • Make one nation safer

  • Nobody refers to expected profits

  • “. . . A desire takes possession of man. He longs to soar upward and to glide, free as the bird . . .” -- Otto Lilienthal 1889

  • “The glory of a great discovery or an invention which is destined to benefit humanity [seemed] dazzling. . . . Enthusiasm seized [us] at an early age.” - Gustav Lilienthal

Octave chanute
Octave Chanute

Railroad / civil engineer, then writer

His 1894 book Progress in FlyingMachines,

surveyed experiments, devices, theories

Adopted “Pratt truss” 1896.

Chanute preferred findings to be shared so as to speed progress

Was in contact with many experimenters. Visited with Langley, Santos-Dumont, Ferber, Huffaker, Herring, Maxim and others.

Corresponded with Hargrave, Mouillard, Montgomery, Cabot, Zahm, Kress, Wenham, Moy, Pilcher, Means, Lilienthals, and others.

and continuing to 1910

The airplane as an open source invention

Correspondence of Lilenthals

Selected letters and contacts of Otto and Gustav Lilienthal (Schwipps, 1993)are with a similar cast of characters

Referring to

Corresponding with

References in histories of aviation
References in histories of aviation

Counted references to persons or institutions in the 11 books below, combined:

Crouch’s A Dream of Wings (1981/2002)

Dale’s Early Flying Machines (1992)

Garber’s Wright Brothers and the Birth of Aviation (2005)

Gibbs-Smith’s The Invention of the Aeroplane. (1966)

Hallion’s Taking Flight (2003)

Hoffman.Wings of Madness (2003 biog of Santos-Dumont)

Jakab’s Visions of a Flying Machine (1990)

Penrose’s An Ancient Air (biography of John Stringfellow)

Randolph’s Before the Wrights flew: the story of Gustave Whitehead. (1966)

Runge and Lukasch Erfinder Leben (2005) (biography of Lilienthal brothers)

Shulman’s Unlocking the Sky (bio of Glenn Curtiss)

Preliminary; almost all this is in English.Now up to 2000 persons referenced.

Again the same names appear.


Hundreds of fixed-wing flying machine patents were filed before 1907. [Data for Germany and U.S.: Simine Short and Otto-Lilienthal Museum]

  • To my knowledge no patents were licensed until the Wrights 1903/06 patent.

  • Chanute, the Wrights, and aviation historians do not treat the patents and most of patent-filers as relevant to the main inventions.

  • Claim: Intellectual property ownership was mostly irrelevant.

  • Inference: the technology was too uncertain and immature for it to matter.

  • The patent system exists in parallel to the network, but does not have traction.

Wright brothers as open sourcers 1900 1902
Wright brothers as open-sourcers 1900-1902

Wilbur and Orville Wright ran a bicycle shop.

They read up on gliders and try flight experiments.

  • Motivations:

    “I am an enthusiast . . . I wish to . . . add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success." -- Wilbur Wright, 1899

    "At the beginning we had no thought of recovering what we were expending, which was not great . . ." -- Orville Wright, 1953

  • They published articles

  • They spoke at conferences

  • Chanute, others visited and stayed in contact

Wilbur wright may 1900
Wilbur Wright, May 1900

First letter to Chanute: “Assuming then that Lilienthal was correct . . . ”

“. . . my object is to learn to what extent similar plans have been tested and found to be failures, and also to obtain such suggestions as your great knowledge and experience might enable you to give me. Imake no secret of my plans [because] I believe no financial profit will accrue to the inventor of the first flying machine, and that only those who are willing to give as well as to receive suggestions can hope to link their names with the honor of its discovery. The problem is too great for one man alone and unaided to solve in secret.”

“I intend to employ [an apparatus] similar to the "double-deck" machine with which the experiments of yourself and Mr. Herring were conducted in 1896-7.”

Chanute’s reply: “I believe like yourself that no financial profit is to be expected from such investigations for a long while to come.”

Wright methods and inventions
Wright methods and inventions

They are skilled, precision-minded toolsmiths, in a workshop every day.

  • Wind tunnel with smooth air flow

  • Tested many wings systematically

  • Propeller invention: shaped like wings, with lift going forward

  • This produces ~40% more pulling power . This design idea lasts to the present.

They flew craft repeatedly as kites and gliders. No landing gear, no engine.

Their piloting design had to be learned, like on bicycle

Wrights withdraw some from open source network
Wrights withdraw some from open source network

Late 1902: they become more secretive, apparently because of wing design success

1903: They filed for a patent on their control mechanism for the wings.

Late 1903: Powered glider flight.

They held their patent rights tightly and enforce them.

It has been suggested that this delayed overall growth by US producers.

Wrights’ first powered, controlled fixed-wing flight

Dec, 1903

The airplane as an open source invention

Parallels to open source software and user innovation
Parallels to open source software and user innovation and propeller makers, pilot schools, exhibition companies -- given time.

  • Autonomous innovators (not hierarchy, not cult)

  • . . . with various goals

    • Want to fly!

    • Hope for recognition, prestige, fame, maybe fortune

    • Curious, interested in the problem

    • Bring peace, or make own nation safer

  • . . . who share technical info with international public

    • Intellectual property set aside

  • Authors, evangelists, organizers have valuable role

More possible parallels
More possible parallels and propeller makers, pilot schools, exhibition companies -- given time.

  • Phase 1: Tinkerers worked in small groups (1800-1894)

    • Internal motivation. Not industrial motive.

    • Experimenters not like economic models of employees, managers, investors, consumers, social planners  need model of “tinkerers”

  • Phase 2: Tinkerers networked more (1894 to 1909)

    • High interaction -- correspondence, sharing networking, visits.

    • Many open/shared designs.

    • Measurement: who’s involved? What’s written? To whom do inventors refer? To whom do historians refer? Who patented, how much, and were they cited?

    • Do these innovators evangelize, publish, and correspond?

    • Do they specialize, modularize, and standardize the technology?

  • Phase 3: Commercialization (1909 and on)

    • The open-type innovators are not the ones who industrialize it.

    • Measurement of industry.

What s counted as a reference
What’s counted as a reference and propeller makers, pilot schools, exhibition companies -- given time.

  • An explicit reference to the person’s name or quote from the person

  • In a relevant book (11 so far; at least 15 to go)

  • Text in main content, preface, forward, introduction, appendices, pictures, tables, and figures

  • Table of Contents and indexes don’t count

  • References to something named for the person count. (Should they?)

  • Events after 1909 shouldn’t count (not done yet)

  • Only events related to aircraft work should count (not done yet)

    • On this view, biographies “over-refer” to the subject person

    • sometimes they leave the subject person out of the index (!)

  • Groups (brothers Wright, Lilienthal, Montgolfier , Tissandier, Voisin; likewise institutions or groups are referred to as groups and other times as individuals)

  •  Counts are preliminary and can never be perfect