The Curtiss-Wright Corporation Collection – Patent Files

Posted on Fri, December 10, 2010

In 1929, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company merged with the Wright Aeronautical Corporation to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. The merger of these two companies created one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the country, which held numerous patents for aircraft. The National Air and Space Museum Archives Division holds two collections that include patent documents from Curtiss-Wright. I just finished processing and writing a finding aid for the files of the Patent Department and found the material quite intriguing.

The majority of the collection consists of original patent certificates issued by the United States Patent Office and Patent Office of Canada between the years 1911 and 1939. The United States certificates are aesthetically appealing, with a bright blue ribbon holding them together, sealed with a red sticker stamp. Early Canadian patents contain the original drawings submitted by the patent applicant.

For me, the most interesting part of the collection was the patent litigation files. With the consolidation of the patents held by the Wright brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and their associates, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation held patents for many of the early discoveries in the design and construction of aircraft. As such, the Patent Department of Curtiss-Wright was vigilant in protecting its patents, suing the Ford Motor Company, the Waco Aircraft Company, the Nicholas-Beazley Airplane Company, and the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation, among others, for patent infringement. The patent litigation files include materials created by Curtiss-Wright in pursuit of litigation, including copies of the proceedings, correspondence and memoranda, aircraft drawings and blueprints, advertising brochures, and copies of related patents. The original file titles as written on the original folders were unremarkable, but accurate—proceedings, correspondence, memoranda.

Although many of the files contained “legalese”—notice, stipulation, equity, annexed motion, etc.—I could usually browse each folder quickly to determine that the description most often did match the contents. I finally came to a folder with the nondescript title: “Data Records Re: Evidence.” Inside were notes from a 1932 interview with Orville Wright. Following the interview was a signed letter from Wright, dated June 15, 1931, and a photograph taken on June 24, 1905. Although the letter and photograph have little value among the large catalog of Wright material in the world, it does contain a signature, so I removed the originals and placed them in our Rare Manuscripts Collection, inserting photocopies in the collection.

Letter from Orville Wright to the Curtiss-Wright Corporation

June 15, 1931 letter from Orville Wright to the Curtiss-Wright Corporation regarding the design of the Wright 1905 Flyer 

The letter and interview reveal an interesting aspect of patent litigation—patents that have been assigned (transferred) to second parties have lives much longer than their original owners may have dreamed. Although Orville Wright had long since ended his association with Wright Aeronautical Corporation, Curtiss-Wright contacted Wright in the hopes that he would provide information to establish that early work on the vertical surface on an airplane was covered by Wright patents. Wright had originally responded favorably, not understanding that the patent was under suit, thinking it had expired. Based on the later interview, Curtiss-Wright determined that Wright would most likely not testify on its behalf, since he was opposed to litigation between American companies and was actually quite friendly with Henry Ford, one of the defendants. Ultimately, the suit was settled out of court with the defendant taking a license from Curtiss-Wright under the patent.

1904 Wright Flyer

July 24, 1905 photograph sent with 1931 Orville Wright letter, demonstrating patent for the vertical surface of a Wright Flyer

Given this new information, when creating a new folder title for this material, I kept the original title “Data Records Re: Evidence” but added “[Orville Wright Interview and Correspondence]” in brackets to let researchers know that this was an archivist-imposed addition. The rest of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation Collection – Patent Files consists of file wrappers (a complete record of proceedings from the filing of the initial patent application to the issued patent); research reports and documents submitted to the U.S. Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics; and minutes, notes, and reports from the Curtiss-Wright Patent Department and Development Division Technical Committee. A finding aid to the collection can be found on the National Air and Space Museum Archives Division website in both HTML and PDF forms.