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NatGeo's 'Wright Brothers vs Curtiss' How Bad Was It? -- Part II

06/05/2015 12:01 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

(This article is the second of a two-part review of NatGeo's "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" which aired June 1st as part of their "American Genius" series. Part 1 of this review can be found here.)

PRO-CURTISS / ANTI-WRIGHT BIAS

The bias of NatGeo's "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" is plainly evident in its 70 second opening. The following description, in parentheses, of what appeared onscreen is this writer's, the narration and dialogue, in bold, are verbatim from the broadcast.

(we see Curtiss Foreman spins the prop, we hear engine sounds)

CURTISS FOREMAN : Are you ready ?

(we see Glenn Curtiss seated on the "June Bug" biplane, hands on the control wheel)

CURTISS : Let's go ! (the "June Bug" begins its takeoff)

(we see Orville and Wilbur setting up their wind tunnel)

NARRATOR : No invention has changed the world (we see a Wright Model 1907 flying low over landscape) quite like the airplane , but the story of its creation (just as the Narrator says "creation" we see Curtiss starting to sketch a design for an aeroplane) is one of intense rivalry, (we see Wilbur in a suit and wearing a soft cap, looking goofy, walking towards a birdhouse on a pole, holding the 1900 kite on his head) between two brothers named Wright...

(indoors, Orville looking down, speaking softly)

ORVILLE : People won't believe we can fly unless we show them.

(at a distance we see the 1902 Wright Glider on top of a sandy hill, two figures, one walking toward the other)

(we see Curtiss in slo-mo, arms folded, looking down, standing in his workshop, backlit in a halo effect)

NARRATOR : ... and a dare-devil called Glenn Curtiss...

CURTISS : May the best plane win.

(we see Curtiss standing at the exit of Wilbur's tent, Wilbur's his face towards Curtiss, Wright Flyer sitting on ground in background, Wilbur looks up at Curtiss, perturbed, as Curtiss exits)

NARRATOR : ... who was brave enough to take them on.
(we see Curtiss walking across a field as he says...)

CURTISS : We fly again tomorrow.

NARRATOR : A bitter competition...
(we see Wilbur in profile)

WILBUR : It's a ploy.
(we see Orville, a deep shadow across his face)

NARRATOR : ... fueled by danger, (we see Wilbur crashing in the 1902 Wright Glider) and marked with tragedy, (we see Orville in profile, wearing street clothes, lying on a bed) (we see Wilbur apparently crying into his hands) would forever change the way (we see Curtiss and the June Bug taking off and flying, a group of people below looking up) (we see Curtiss' hands on the June Bug's control wheel) we see the world. (we see Curtiss in profile flying the June Bug, determined look on his face)

(we see the front elevator of the June Bug turning up to gain altitude)

(we see Curtiss in profile, smiling, flying in the June Bug)

(TITLE : WRIGHT vs CURTISS) (the title card shows Wilbur and Orville in the top half, standing looking towards the left; below we see a determined Curtiss facing to the right, wearing a leather jacket, a soft cap and goggles, flying the June Bug)

(TITLE : AMERICAN GENIUS)

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Now, what are we supposed to take from this 70 second opening sequence ?

  • Curtiss flew before Wilbur and Orville Wright did
  • Wilbur and Orville set up their wind tunnel after Curtiss flew the June Bug (in other words, the Wright brothers are shown still experimenting while Curtiss is actually flying)
  • Curtiss' sketch of an aeroplane design is linked with the narrator saying "creation" of the aeroplane
  • Wilbur is emotionally "at risk"
  • Curtiss is strong, determined and decisive
  • Curtiss is a brave dare-devil who isn't afraid to 'take on' the Wrights
  • Curtiss has a group of helpers and supporters to help with his flying (in other words, Curtiss is sociable and well liked)
  • Wilbur and Orville Wright are on their own, except for a couple of workers in their bicycle shop (in other words, the Wright brothers are isolated and nearly friendless)
  • While Curtiss is flying and controlling a powered aeroplane, Wilbur and Orville can only manage an attempt to fly with a glider, and they crashed
  • As the title card appears we see Curtiss in flight and the Wright brothers standing

During the opening, Curtiss is shown making a successful powered flight in 8 scenes - in 1908.

Of the 6 scenes showing a Wright machine flying, 1 shows the powered flight of a two-seat Wright Flyer, 1 shows the 1902 Wright Glider in stable flight, and 4 show the 1902 glider starting to crash.

The only vague hint of the Wrights' success at Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina on December 17, 1903, is the 1901 wind tunnel being set up.

"Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" is taking the side of Curtiss, even while admitting that Wilbur and Orville Wright flew on December 17, 1903.

"Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" takes the view that establishing an aviation industry (Curtiss in this story) was more important or at least as important as making the very first true powered, controlled, sustained human flight.

The opening sequence of "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" was not done in some random manner, it was purposeful in what was shown, how often it was shown, and in what order it was shown, and reflects the attitude of those who produced "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss."

We were being told what the course of the story would be and important characteristics about the main characters.

We were also being induced to accept the false narratives that follow as the main body of the story.

The FIVE FALSE NARRATIVES

False Narrative No. 1 - "First in Flight"
Glenn Curtiss is portrayed engaged in a rivalry with Wilbur and Orville Wright, for the sobriquet of "First in Flight."

However, Wilbur Wright began his aerial effort in 1899, leading to the success of 1903.

Glenn Curtiss began pursuing heavier-than-air aeronautical matters in 1908.

By 1908, when Curtiss began his experimentation, it was very certainly established that Wright aeroplanes flew under control and flew rather well, for long distances and for long periods of time.

False Narrative No. 2 "Patent Stifles US Aviation Industry"
That the US aviation industry were being stifled by the enforcement of the Wright Patent, and but for the Wrights insisting on defending their patent, aviation in the US would have flourished.

That narrative is false because, whatever negative effect the enforcement of their legal patent might have had, the main impediment to the development of an aviation industry in the US was the almost complete lack of financial support by the US government. During the same period, the European imperial powers were devoting very large amounts of public funds to spur on their own aviation industries.

Between May 22nd 1906 (when the Wright Patent was approved by the US Patent Office) and August 1909, the Wrights were not strenuously enforcing their patent.

It is also part of the "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" false narrative that the Wrights refused to sell a license to manufacture aeroplanes to Curtiss. When Curtiss was first contacted, it was he who refused to pay for a license.

As they sought investors and the 'Wall St. Money' investors would bring, they were forced to defend their patent. It's important to know that if a patent holder were to not seek to enforce their patent, their patent could be declared void by the Patent Office.

"Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" takes the position time and again that the Wright Patent was an impediment and seems to suggest that the Wrights shouldn't have been so intent on enforcing their patent. What sense does that make ? Once having gotten their three-axis control system approved as a US Patent, why would they not go after those who were infringing on that patent ?

What sense would that make ?

As for aeronautical activity in the US, it was quite robust during the time of the patent lawsuits. During 1911, the Curtiss Exhibition Company provided aviators for over a dozen state fairs and exhibited at over 200 locations, for a total of more than 500 days of flying.

False Narrative No. 3 "Wright brothers Disagree over Public Flights"
That Wilbur and Orville disagreed over whether to make public flights.

There is no known record of this being anything more than the most minimal disagreement of place and time. The issue, as "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" presents it, is exaggerated beyond all reason... but, of course we know why, drama (even the most fabricated variety) trumps facts - sadly, even on NatGeo.

False Narrative No. 4 "The Patent & Wing-Warping"
That wing-warping was the central issue with respect to the Wright Patent - it was not. "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" makes it the single most important aspect of the Wright Patent, presumably in order to simplify the storyline, rather than be pestered with actually educating people about the truth the matter.

The Wright Patent was concerned with controlling the flight of heavier-than-air aerial machines in all three directions of movement, roll (horizontal motion left and right - rolling), pitch (up-and-down motion) and yaw (side-to-side motion). Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the means to control flight in those three directions.

False Narrative No. 5 "Nothing Much Happened Abroad"
The fifth false narrative is the near-total absence of mentions of aerial happenings beyond those of Curtiss and the Wrights in the US. Wilbur's astonishing flights in France in 1908, and Orville's later flights in Germany, and the Wrights' technical dominance of aviation up until 1909/10 are completely absent from the storyline of "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss."

Time-Warping
One of the more annoying and non-historical aspects of "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" is the shifting of events from one year to the next, done, presumably, to support the First False Narrative.

The Wrights are seen putting their wind tunnel together (this happened during the fall of 1901) after Curtiss is shown flying the June Bug in July 1908.

The 1902 Wright Glider is shown crashing in 1902 - the narrator states... "Wilbur survives the crash, but if the Wright brothers are going to be first in manned flight, they'll have to rethink their design, and fast. After all, the race to be first in the air is just heating up."

The crash happened on August 9th 1901, and the glider was the 1901 Wright Glider.

NatGeo and Banijay/Stephen David Entertainment have obviously decided to let dramatic effect rule the sequence of events, the dates of events and even the events themselves.

Fiction, novel, novella, graphic novel, comic book - whatever it is, "T'aint history"

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END NOTES...

Prior to airing "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss" NatGeo titled this production "Wright vs Curtiss" (the opening title still reads "Wright vs Curtiss") and after the kerfuffle about their show erupted, it appears they changed the title on their website to be "Wright Brothers vs Curtiss."

Also, whereas prior to the broadcast NatGeo called this production a "Documentary" it is now referred to as a "Docu-drama" (which is far more appropriate, although something such as "Fictional account using historical persons and events" would be even more appropriate.

Let's all hope the Tom Hanks Wright brothers production on HBO will hew closer to reality than NatGeo and Banijay/Stephen David Entertainment chose to.

Memo to Tom H.: "Please, value history over drama."

One passing thought... Glenn Curtiss looked more like Curtiss chum Augustus Post than Curtiss, whose signature moustache exploded into a full-beard in this production.

Finally, the wardrobe costumers, makeup artists and stylists did a remarkable job with probably very few resources, and DP Piero Basso deserves a high-five, as well. They were not, after all, responsible for the awful mess the script became.