The role of patents in the history of aviation

Author:Intan Hamdan-Livramento
Position:Economics and Statistics Division, WIPO

This article is derived from the World Intellectual Property Report 2015 – Breakthrough Innovation and Economic Growth The history of how a heavier-than-air machine took flight is replete with tales of fearless inventors, daredevils and dream chasers. It is also full of stories of meticulous and repetitive experimentation, advanced calculus and reliance on hard science. Government, too, played a ... (see full summary)


How the airplane came to be is an insightful example of how minor and major technological and scientific advances by notable risk-takers under specific economic conditions resulted in a truly ground-breaking innovation – one that has transformed the way the world works today.

But what part did the patent system play in the evolution of the airplane?

The answer: patenting had a role in the development of this technological marvel in the start-up years when commercial flight became a reality. But it is difficult to assess the extent to which patents alone shaped the evolution of the industry overall, given the critical influence of government intervention in driving advances in aviation in the lead up to the First World War through to the end of the Second World War. While governments continue to support the aerospace industry, their scope of influence is arguably lower than in the first half of the 20th century. Also, in the post-war era, and still today, there is little evidence of critical patents blocking the technological evolution of the airplane.

Tracing the evolution of the airplane reveals three important stages of development: the early years of open collaboration, followed by the emergence of a new industry years and finally the war years. Each of these stages provided a different innovation setting and dynamic among the inventors, the academic institutions, governments and economic environment.

Early enthusiasts form an open community

In the early years of aviation, when flying was still a dream, a small but growing community of enthusiasts was driven by the challenge of “how to fly.” Early pioneers like Francis Wenham and Lawrence Hargrave had no expectation of making money from their endeavors, at least in the beginning.

At the time, developments in aviation were predominantly mechanical, and could be imitated relatively easily. That meant that anyone who had an interest in flying and the financial means to do so could belong to the flying community.

Inventors would learn from previous experiments and would adapt or change their airplane designs and test them to see if they worked. Most would report their findings back to the community, and thereby further expand the knowledge base of flying.

These aviation dreamers openly collaborated with each other to ensure that each learned from the other’s experiments. During this period, journals, exhibitions and conferences sprang up to share the latest developments and know-how on flying. Membership-based clubs and societies on aerial navigation formed across the globe in Australia, China, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines and United Kingdom to name a few.


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