Confident that he could craft any piece of machinery to perfection — be it wheeled or winged — Glenn Hammond Curtiss was an innovator who was correct more often than not.
Born in 1878, Mr. Curtiss’ entree to the world of mechanical engineering began in the 1890s while racing bicycles for Hammondsport bike shop owner Jim Smellie.
Mr. Curtiss subsequently opened his own bicycle storefront in 1899, succinctly named “Bicycles-G.H. Curtiss.” In this workshop the young businessman designed and built his own line of bicycles under the brand name Hercules.
A circa 1906 Curtiss motorcycle with Flexible Side Car. Photo: Christine Murphy.
By 1902 he had progressed from basic bikes to building one- and two-cylinder engine motorcycles, which were mechanically comparable to those produced by well-known companies like Harley Davidson and Indian. With additional help from several employees, Mr. Curtiss soon was selling these machines to the public.
A 1912 G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company motorcycle composed of a single cylinder, 4-5 horse power, magneto ignition and Wehman model frame. Photo: Christine Murphy.
Not only did Mr. Curtiss enjoy crafting two-wheeled vehicles, he also loved testing the limits of his machines. In 1907 he broke a world record at the annual Ormond Beach “Carnival of Speed” in Florida when he and his V8-powered motorcycle clocked in at 136.3 mph on the packed sand surface. The feat was considered so daring that the “Chicago Daily News” dubbed him the “Fastest Man on Earth.”
Mr. Curtiss’ first opportunity in the aviation field arrived in the form of Thomas Baldwin, a California balloonist who commissioned a V-twin motorcycle engine that could power a dirigible of his own design. The motorized mini-blimp’s flight was so successful that Mr. Baldwin speedily relocated his dirigible manufacturing business, Baldwin Airships Company, to Hammondsport to be closer to Mr. Curtiss. Soon Curtiss engines were powering the majority of U.S.-produced dirigibles and in 1907 Mr. Curtiss took his maiden voyage in a Baldwin dirigible. He was immediately hooked and began to focus most of his energies and talents on creating machines that could fly.
Shortly afterward, he became a member of Alexander Graham Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association (AES). In its short history, the AES produced four flying machines including the Red Wing, which flew 300 feet before crashing, earning it the designation from the Aero Club of America as the “first public flight of an airplane” in the United States.
According to Trafford Doherty, executive director of the Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum in Hammondsport, the Aero Club of America awarded Mr. Curtiss, rather than the Wright Brothers, American Pilot’s License #1 in 1911.
On July 4, 1908, Mr. Curtiss piloted the AES’ third plane, the June Bug. Mr. Curtiss encouraged event organizers to “Draw a crowd to Hammondsport to prove to the world that we can really fly,” and the advanced publicity paid off: more than 1,000 spectators and photographers gathered to see the June Bug soar across the sky. As a result, Mr. Curtiss won the highly coveted Scientific American Association trophy, and brought aviation into the public eye.
The Glenn H. Curtiss museum reproduction of Mr. Curtiss's famous 1908 June Bug plane. Glenn Curtiss is in the pilot’s seat and fellow AES member, Thomas Selfridge, is standing beside him. Photo: Sue Henninger.
The following year, Mr. Curtiss walked away with his second Scientific American prize for his 25-mile flight in the Golden Flier. In 1910, Mr. Curtiss and the Albany Flier made the first-ever 150 mile flight from Albany to New York City, winning both the New York World Prize and the Scientific American Association trophy for the third and final time. “He was the first and only person to win the honor three times in a row,” says Mr. Doherty. “So the trophy was his to keep. He took it out of circulation.”
These triumphs were also financially beneficial to Mr. Curtiss. “He wanted people to buy his planes and he wanted to make money from the sale of a good product,” Mr. Doherty explains. A staunch advocate of the free enterprise system, Mr. Curtiss believed in the old adage, “may the best man win.” Though he was known as the founder of the American aircraft industry, Mr. Curtiss, possessing only an eighth grade education, knew his limits and surrounded himself with experts in other fields. For example, Mr. Doherty tells us, “He didn’t have the chops to run an assembly line for his plant in Buffalo so he hired people from the auto industry to do it for him.”
Mr. Curtiss’ other moniker is “Father of Naval Aviation.” Taking his planes to water, the first Curtiss Flying Boat took its inaugural flight from the surface of New York’s Keuka Lake, using the water as a runway. Sportsmen and affluent businessmen, viewed this machine as a means of reaching previously inaccessible hunting and camping locales.
A view from the Keuka Lake beach in Hammondsport, where Glenn Curtiss practiced flying his revolutionary sea planes and flying boats. Photo: Sue Henninger.
“There weren’t airports during that time but there was water everywhere,” Mr. Doherty explains. “That’s why Glenn Curtiss got into water flying. The Finger Lakes was the perfect place to do this, with lakes of all sizes in close proximity. You also had the Great Lakes and the canal system.” Mr. Doherty notes that these planes are still in use by Forest Service to fight fires and also by those who want to access remote places.
Though the flying boats were too expensive for the average person, there was a government institution that found them irresistible. In 1911, Mr. Curtiss trained the first U.S. naval aviator and sold the first amphibious aero plane — the A1 — to the Navy. “It’s a Curtiss patent boat hull with wings,” Mr. Doherty explains. Eventually it was perfected to achieve yet another first, the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean. “That’s where Curtiss made most of his money, selling his flying boats, not only to our navy, but to the British, Italian and Russian navies, too,” says Mr. Doherty, adding that the Curtiss Flying Boats were the only American aircraft to be used in anti-submarine patrolling in WWI combat.
But it was the Jenny single-engine biplane (JN-4D) that helped earn Mr. Curtiss his first million dollars. Ninety-five percent of Canadian and U.S. pilots were trained on the Jenny in WWI and famous aviators like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart also enjoyed flying this popular plane.
Why then, despite Mr. Curtiss’ enormous contributions to aviation, do the Wright brothers’ names dominate history books? “We simplify history,” Mr. Doherty asserts. “We’re taught that Ben Franklin discovered electricity, that Robert Fulton invented the steamboat and that the Wright brothers designed the first airplanes. None of this is true. History is more complicated than that. In all of these cases the credit should go to a number of people, not just one individual.” And as for the reputed rivalry between the Wright brothers and Mr. Curtiss? Mr. Doherty believes a fundamental difference in philosophy fueled the animosity between the men. He explains that when Mr. Curtiss took to the skies, he extended an open invitation to the world to join him; in direct contrast, Orville and Wilbur Wright “were so terrified that people would steal their idea that they left their plane in a hangar for two years.” The brothers flew in secrecy and Mr. Doherty claims that their lawsuits against Mr. Curtiss and others like him greatly impeded aviation’s forward momentum. In fact, he reveals Henry Ford was so disgusted by the raging patent wars (which he had also been forced to engage in with his automobiles) that he loaned to Mr. Curtiss his personal patent attorney who won the case for the Hammondsport aviator.
According to Mr. Doherty, Mr. Curtiss flew actively from 1907-1914. Though his exhibition and developmental flights may have numbered in the thousands, there are no flight logs from that era. Amazingly, Mr. Curtiss never crashed, though he certainly had a few rough landings. “He always took calculated risks,” the museum director observes. “He did his homework and was prepared for anything.” He would die at age 52 not from flight complications but instead a blood clot that developed during an appendectomy.
Mr. Doherty recommends visiting the Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum and viewing the 14-minute introductory film in the museum theater before starting the tour. “It’s a good overview which will make browsing through the exhibits much more meaningful,” he says. For those who want to explore Glenn H. Curtiss’s life and accomplishments further, Mr. Doherty recommends the prize-winning documentary, “Glenn Curtiss: The Forgotten Eagle,” which is sold in the museum’s gift shop.
The Curtiss Museum is open daily year-round (except for major holidays) and group tours are available with advance registration. Admission is $8.50 per individual and $6.00 per tour group. Parking is free.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the Aerial Experiment Association (AES) awarded Mr. Curtiss the first American Pilot's License; in fact, the awarding organization was the Aero Club of America.