Case | HBS Case Collection | December 2010 (Revised March 2015)

The Wright Brothers and Their Flying Machines

by Tom Nicholas and David Chen


Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright were fascinated by the mystery of flight and they built on the ideas of prominent earlier figures such as Octave Chanute (1832-1910) the French-born American who was influential in fostering the free exchange of ideas surrounding aeronautics. Information exchange between practical tinkerers from across the globe led to a process of cumulative innovation unhindered by rivalry operating through the intellectual property rights system. Yet in 1903, the year the Wright Brothers achieved controlled sustained flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they applied for and were subsequently granted a US patent for a "flying-machine" which changed the industry irrevocably. While American manufacturers diverted resources from science and technology to patent wars and legal disputes, European aeronautics advanced more rapidly.

Keywords: Entrepreneurship; Business History; Technological Innovation; Patents; Knowledge Sharing; Air Transportation; Air Transportation Industry; Europe; United States;


Nicholas, Tom, and David Chen. "The Wright Brothers and Their Flying Machines." Harvard Business School Case 811-034, December 2010. (Revised March 2015.)