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Harry Toulmin StatueHarry Toulmin

Almost everyone knows that we recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of Wright brothers first flight in 2003, but did you know that we also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers flying machine patent in 2006?

Applying for a U.S. Patent on their flying machine was never far from the Wrights’ minds. Their first attempt to get a patent on their invention failed, largely because they wrote the patent application themselves. Also contributing to its failure was their inability to demonstrate they had an actual and practical flying machine.

At about that same time, the U.S. Patent Office had begun receiving a flood of patent applications for aerial craft of all descriptions and as a result of this deluge, had adopted a policy of only approving applications for inventions involving flying machines if the benchmark of “practicality” could be demonstrated.

Following the U.S. Patent Office examiner's advice to the brothers to work with a patent attorney, Wilbur began searching for a qualified lawyer. Two friends, John Kirby and Will Ohmer, recommended that Wilbur contact Henry A. Toulmin in Springfield.

In January 1904, Wilbur wrote to Toulmin asking for an appointment to discuss filing a new patent application. Eight days later Wilbur made the trip to Springfield. Toulmin took Wilbur and Orville's claims seriously when they announced they wanted to patent a flying machine. The Wright brothers hired Toulmin that day and placed the Wright patent case in his hands.

After studying what the Wright brothers had given him to work with, Toulmin urged that they only seek a patent on its system for in-air control which they followed his recommendation that they apply for a patent based on the 3-axis control system of their 1902 Glider instead of their powered 1903 or 1904 Flyers in order to avoid having to present a working model to a highly doubting Patent Office. In addition, Toulmin advised the Wrights to patent not just the mechanisms that allowed them to warp or flex a wing but, more importantly, to patent the idea of roll control itself.

In all, Toulmin handled 5 patent applications for the Wright brothers over a period of 17 years, spurring more than 13 years of fierce legal battles over the intellectual property rights he helped create. As a result of Toulmin's success in keeping others from using the Wright brothers' ideas, aircraft manufacturers established the Aircraft Manufacturers Association to coordinate the World War I wartime aircraft manufacturing in the United States and formed a patent pool 4 months after the start of the war, in July, 1917, with the approval of the U.S. government. All patent litigation ceased automatically and royalties were reduced to 1% and free exchange of inventions and ideas took place among all the airframe builders.

Toulmin channeled his success and notoriety into authoring more than 30 books on a wide variety of topics, including the Truman Committee of President Harry S. Truman. Several of Toulmin's books were published well after his death in 1942.

To mark the anniversary of this historic event, Springfield recently erected a statue of Harry Toulmin who was the Wright brothers patent attorney.