The Flying Machine – One Hundred Years On

November 2005

Drawing from patent application filed by Wright Brothers on March 23, 1903
Drawing from patent application filed by Wright Brothers on March 23, 1903

“Our first interest began when we were children. Father brought home to us a small toy actuated by a rubber spring, which would lift itself into the air. We built a number of copies of this toy, which flew successfully.” – Orville Wright

Man realized his dream of flying over 100 years ago in 1903. On May 22, 1906, the United States granted patent number 821,393 for a Flying Machine to Wilber and Orville Wright. It was an invention that would change the world.

Wilber and Orville Wright loved to tinker, and the race to develop the world’s first flying machine at the turn of the 19th Century must have caught their attention. They remembered how as boys they had been able to make a toy that could fly, so the brothers turned from building bicycles in their workshop to designing flying machines. In December 1903 they succeeded where others had failed; they built the first powered aircraft to maintain a sustained, controlled flight. The invention took them another two years – until 1905 – to perfect.

The brothers were conscious of the need to protect their invention. But once the airplanes were publicly demonstrated, the technology was relatively easy to copy – and patent infringers were numerous. The brothers found themselves in legal battles across Europe and America. Discouraged by the legal haranguing, Orville Wright left the airplane business in 1916 a few years after the death of his brother. But he kept on tinkering. He built a small laboratory in his hometown where he worked on aeronautics, racing planes, guided missiles, toasters, automatic record changers, children’s toys – whatever took his fancy.

The DC-3, the world’s most successful airplane, still flies today.(Photo Robert Neil)

Commercial passenger flight

When Orville sold the business, there were only two potential markets for the airplane: military and exhibition flying, where most of the money was being made. But commercial passenger transportation, made feasible as a result of the technology developed through military use, would have a far broader impact on the general populace.

Commercial passenger air transportation had started in Germany on Zeppelin airships, which ran from 1910 to the start of the war in 1914, flying some 34,000 passengers and crew. It was in 1919 that passenger flights in airplanes were introduced and it was a rather daunting experience for those who could afford it. The two passengers, squeezed-in facing each other in what was a converted gunner’s cockpit, could not hear themselves think over the engine noise and howling wind. Much improvement would be needed before commercial flight became an attractive alternative to ships.

In 1933 Donald Douglas introduced the 12-passenger DC-1 with heaters and soundproofing. But it was not until the 1935 test flight of the DC-3 – the most successful passenger airplane in history – that he got it all right. The 21-passenger DC-3 incorporated just about every aviation-related engineering advance of the day, including [almost completely] enclosed engines to reduce drag, new types of wing flaps for better control, and variable-pitch propellers, whose angle could be altered in flight to improve efficiency and thrust. The DC-3 could even be configured with sleeping berths for long-distance flights. Passengers came flocking and travel changed forever (more).

Concorde, the only supersonic passenger plane ever built, with a cruising speed of more than twice the speed of sound. It took less than 3.5 hours to fly from London to New York. A joint UK-French project, the Concorde required over a decade of on the ground research and nearly 5,000 hours of flight development.

Speed and power

PCT applications describe novel configurations of the Airbus A380, e.g. private cabin modules like mini hotel rooms, with pull-down bed, entertainment system and wash basin (WO 2004/009442 – at right); a children’s “play container” with ladder and slide (WO 2004/078301); or reclining seats arranged back-to-back in groups of four on either side of the aisles (WO 2004/018290). (Photo Airbus)

DC-3s are still in use today, mostly transporting cargo and medical relief supplies in developing countries. But the minimum of 15 hours required for the propeller engine to fly across the Atlantic would discourage today’s most fervent long-haul flyers. For commercial flight to become the success it is today, engineers would have to go back to their drawing board to design a faster, more powerful flying machine.

Jet engines were the answer. Developed in the mid-1940s, they revolutionized the airline industry. By the 1960s jet engines had halved the time required to cross the ocean and airplanes quickly grew in size and passenger capacity. The first jumbo jet, the Boeing 747 introduced in 1969, carried 547 passengers and crew, and brought commercial flight within the means of the average citizen. Then came deregulation. Airlines competed against each other, driving down prices.

The next generation of super jumbo jets will be even larger. In an all-economy class configuration the Airbus A380, which made its first test flights this year, will carry over 800 passengers non-stop from Paris to Sydney in 15 hours. The advanced technology used to build the plane will also result in 15-20 percent lower costs per seat-mile, while increasing its range by 10 percent above that of other large aircrafts and significantly reducing noise and pollution emission levels.

White knight launch of SpaceShipOne (left). Touchdown! SpaceShipOne returns to the runway. (right) Scaled Composites have U.S. patent applications pending for their Winged Spacecraft and for their Unitized Hybrid Rocket Motor. (Credit: Courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC)


Now boarding for outer space

Where next? Flights to outer space may soon be within the grasp of civilian passengers if Burt Rutan, the aerospace designer behind the rocket plane SpaceShipOne has his way. Using new technologies developed by his company, Scaled Composites, he designed the craft specifically to put civilians into space without government assistance. Burt Rutan recently signed an agreement with Virgin Galactic to manufacture and market SpaceShipOne, which was voted “Coolest Invention of 2004” by Time Magazine.

"Before Wilber [Wright] went to Paris with his airplane, the Europeans thought he was lying," Burt Rutan said to Time Magazine. "Then they watched him do turns, and they watched him fly for a long time, and they watched him do multiple flights a day. I believe the significant thing is that they then all said, at the same time, 'I can do that, too, because these are just bicycle shop guys.'"

Eco-friendly flight


The Embrear 202 Ipanema, a crop dusting aircraft made in Brazil, is one of the first ethanol-fueled airplane certified by the aviation regulation industry. Ethanol is an alcohol extracted from cane sugar. It is three to four times cheaper than aviation gasoline, cleaner and more environmentally friendly, because it has no lead content. Embrear’s research indicates that it increases engine power by five percent and may prolong engine life.

(Photo Guilherme Maranhao)

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