Glenn Hammond Curtiss (May 21, 1878 – July 23, 1930) was an American aviation and motorcycling pioneer, and a founder of the U.S. aircraft industry. He began his career as a bicycle racer and builder before moving on to motorcycles. As early as 1904, he began to manufacture engines for airships. In 1908, Curtiss joined the Aerial Experiment Association, a pioneering research group, founded by Alexander Graham Bell at Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia, to build flying machines.
Curtiss made the first officially witnessed flight in North America, won a race at the world's first international air meet in France, and made the first long-distance flight in the United States. His contributions in designing and building aircraft led to the formation of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, now part of Curtiss-Wright Corporation. His company built aircraft for the U.S. Army and Navy, and, during the years leading up to World War I, his experiments with seaplanes led to advances in naval aviation. Curtiss civil and military aircraft were predominant in the interwar and World War II eras.
Curtiss was born in 1878 in Hammondsport, New York, to Frank Richmond Curtiss and Lua Andrews. Although his formal education extended only to eighth grade, his early interest in mechanics and inventions was evident at his first job at the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company (later Eastman Kodak Company) in Rochester, New York. He invented a stencil machine adopted at the plant and later built a rudimentary camera to study photography.
On March 7, 1898, Curtiss married Lena Pearl Neff (1879–1951), daughter of Guy L. Neff and Jenny M. Potter, in Hammondsport, New York. They had two children:
Curtiss began his career as a Western Union bicycle messenger, a bicycle racer, and bicycle-shop owner. In 1901, he developed an interest in motorcycles when internal-combustion engines became more available. In 1902, Curtiss began manufacturing motorcycles with his own single-cylinder engines. His first motorcycle's carburetor was adapted from a tomato soup can containing a gauze screen to pull the gasoline up by capillary action. In 1903, he set a motorcycle land speed record at 64 miles per hour (103 km/h) for one mile (1.6 km). When E.H. Corson of the Hendee Mfg Co (manufacturers of Indian motorcycles) visited Hammondsport in July 1904, he was amazed that the entire Curtiss motorcycle enterprise was located in the back room of the modest "shop". Corson's motorcycles had just been trounced the week before by "Hell Rider" Curtiss in an endurance race from New York to Cambridge, Maryland.
On January 21, 1906,, Curtiss set an unofficial world record of 136.36 miles per hour (219.45 km/h), on a 40 horsepower (30 kW) 269 cu in (4,410 cc) V-8-powered motorcycle of his own design and construction in Ormond Beach, Florida. The air-cooled F-head engine was intended for use in aircraft. He remained "the fastest man in the world", the title the newspapers gave him, until 1911, and his motorcycle record was not broken until 1930. This motorcycle is now in the Smithsonian Institution. Curtiss's success at racing strengthened his reputation as a leading maker of high-performance motorcycles and engines.
In 1904, Curtiss became a supplier of engines for the California "aeronaut" Tom Baldwin. In that same year, Baldwin's California Arrow, powered by a Curtiss 9 HP V-twin motorcycle engine, became the first successful dirigible in America.
In 1907, Alexander Graham Bell invited Curtiss to develop a suitable engine for heavier-than-air flight experimentation. Bell regarded Curtiss as "the greatest motor expert in the country" and invited Curtiss to join his Aerial Experiment Association (AEA).
Between 1908 and 1910, the AEA produced four aircraft, each one an improvement over the last. Curtiss primarily designed the AEA's third aircraft, Aerodrome #3, the famous June Bug, and became its test pilot, undertaking most of the proving flights. On July 4, 1908, he flew 5,080 ft (1,550 m) to win the Scientific American Trophy and its $2,500 prize. This was considered to be the first pre-announced public flight of a heavier-than-air flying machine in America. On June 8, 1911 Curtiss received U.S. Pilot's License #1 from the Aero Club of America, because the first batch of licenses were issued in alphabetical order; Wilbur Wright received license #5. The flight of the June Bug propelled Curtiss and aviation firmly into public awareness. At the culmination of the Aerial Experiment Association's experiments, Curtiss offered to purchase the rights to Aerodrome #3, essentially using it as the basis of his "Curtiss No. 1, the first of his production series of pusher aircraft.
During the 1909–1910 period, Curtiss employed a number of demonstration pilots, including Eugene Ely, Charles K. Hamilton, Augustus Post, and Hugh Robinson. Aerial competitions and demonstration flights across North America helped to introduce aviation to a curious public; Curtiss took full advantage of these occasions to promote his products. This was a busy period for Glenn Curtiss.
In August 1909, Curtiss took part in the Grande Semaine d'Aviation aviation meeting at Reims, France, organized by the Aéro-Club de France. The Wrights, who were selling their machines to customers in Germany at the time, decided not to compete in person. Two Wright aircraft (modified with a landing gear) were at the meet, but they did not win any events. Flying his No. 2 biplane, Curtiss won the overall speed event, the Gordon Bennett Cup, completing the 20-km (12.5-mile) course in just under 16 minutes at a speed of 46.5 mph (74.8 km/h), six seconds faster than runner-up Louis Blériot. [N 1]
On May 29, 1910, Curtiss flew from Albany to New York City to make the first long-distance flight between two major cities in the U.S. For this 137-mile (220 km) flight, which he completed in just under four hours including two stops to refuel, he won a $10,000 prize offered by publisher Joseph Pulitzer and was awarded permanent possession of the Scientific American trophy.
In June 1910, Curtiss provided a simulated bombing demonstration to naval officers at Hammondsport. Two months later, Lt. Jacob E. Fickel demonstrated the feasibility of shooting at targets on the ground from an aircraft with Curtiss serving as pilot. One month later, in September, he trained Blanche Stuart Scott, who was possibly the first American woman pilot. The fictional character Tom Swift, who first appeared in 1910 in Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle and Tom Swift and His Airship, has been said to have been based on Glenn Curtiss. The Tom Swift books are set in a small town on a lake in upstate New York.
On November 14, 1910, Curtiss demonstration pilot Eugene Ely took off from a temporary platform mounted on the forward deck of the cruiser USS Birmingham. His successful takeoff and ensuing flight to shore marked the beginning of a relationship between Curtiss and the Navy that remained significant for decades. At the end of 1910, Curtiss established a winter encampment at San Diego to teach flying to Army and Naval personnel. Here, he trained Lt. Theodore Ellyson, who became U.S. Naval Aviator #1, and three Army officers, 1st Lt. Paul W. Beck, 2nd Lt. George E. M. Kelly, and 2nd Lt. John C. Walker, Jr., in the first military aviation school. (Chikuhei Nakajima, founder of Nakajima Aircraft Company, was a 1912 graduate.) The original site of this winter encampment is now part of Naval Air Station North Island and is referred to by the Navy as "The Birthplace of Naval Aviation".
Through the course of that winter, Curtiss was able to develop a float (pontoon) design that enabled him to take off and land on water. On January 26, 1911, he flew the first seaplane from the water in the United States. Demonstrations of this advanced design were of great interest to the Navy, but more significant, as far as the Navy was concerned, was Eugene Ely successfully landing his Curtiss pusher (the same aircraft used to take off from the Birmingham) on a makeshift platform mounted on the rear deck of the battleship USS Pennsylvania. This was the first arrester-cable landing on a ship and the precursor of modern-day carrier operations. On January 28, 1911, Ellyson took off in a Curtiss “grass cutter” to become the first Naval aviator.
Curtiss custom built floats and adapted them onto a Model D so it could take off and land on water to prove the concept. On February 24, 1911, Curtiss made his first amphibious demonstration at North Island by taking off and alighting on both land and water. Back in Hammondsport, six months later in July 1911, Curtiss sold the U.S. Navy their first aircraft, the A-1 Triad. The A-1, which was primarily a seaplane, was equipped with retractable wheels, also making it the first amphibious aircraft. Curtiss trained the Navy's first pilots and built their first aircraft. For this, he is considered in the USA to be "The Father of Naval Aviation". The Triad was immediately recognized as so obviously useful, it was purchased by the U.S. Navy, Russia, Japan, Germany, and Britain. Curtiss won the Collier Trophy for designing this aircraft.
Around this time, Curtiss met retired British naval officer John Cyril Porte, who was looking for a partner to produce an aircraft with him to win the Daily Mail prize for the first transatlantic crossing. In 1912, Curtiss produced the two-seat Flying Fish, a larger craft that became classified as a flying boat because the hull sat in the water; it featured an innovative notch (known as a "step") in the hull that Porte recommended for breaking clear of the water at takeoff. Curtiss correctly surmised that this configuration was more suited to building a larger long-distance craft that could operate from water, and was also more stable when operating from a choppy surface. Porte and Curtiss produced the America in 1914, a larger flying boat with two engines, for the transatlantic crossing.
With the start of World War I, Porte returned to service in the Royal Navy, which subsequently purchased several models of the America, now called the H-4, from Curtiss. Porte licensed and further developed the designs, constructing a range of Felixstowe long-range patrol aircraft, and from his experience passed along improvements to the hull to Curtiss. The later British designs were sold to the U.S. forces, or built by Curtiss as the F5L. The Curtiss factory also built a total of 68 "Large Americas", which evolved into the H-12, the only American-designed and -built aircraft to see combat in World War I.
As 1916 approached, the United States was feared to be drawn into the conflict. The Army's Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps ordered the development of a simple, easy-to-fly-and-maintain, two-seat trainer. Curtiss created the JN-4 "Jenny" for the Army, and the N-9 seaplane version for the Navy. They were some of the most famous products of the Curtiss company, and thousands were sold to the militaries of the United States, Canada, and Britain. Civilian and military aircraft demand boomed, and the company grew to employ 18,000 workers in Buffalo and 3,000 workers in Hammondsport.
In 1917, the U.S. Navy commissioned Curtiss to design a long-range, four-engined flying boat large enough to hold a crew of five, which became known as the Curtiss NC. The four NC flying boats attempted a transatlantic crossing in 1919, and the NC-4 successfully crossed. It is now on permanent display in the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida.
A patent lawsuit by the Wright brothers against Curtiss in 1909 continued until it was resolved during World War I. Since the last Wright aircraft, the Wright Model L, was a single prototype of a "scouting" aircraft, made in 1916, the U.S. government, desperately short of combat aircraft, pressured both firms to resolve the dispute. In 1917, the U.S. government offered a large and profitable contract to Curtiss to build aircraft for the U.S. Army.
Peace brought cancellation of wartime contracts. In September 1920, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company underwent a financial reorganization. Glenn Curtiss cashed out his stock in the company for $32 million and retired to Florida. He continued on as a director of the company, but served only as an adviser on design. Clement M. Keys gained control of the company, which later became the nucleus of a large group of aviation companies.
Curtiss and his family moved to Florida in the 1920s, where he founded 18 corporations, served on civic commissions, and donated extensive land and water rights. He co-developed the city of Hialeah with James Bright and developed the cities of Opa-locka and Miami Springs, where he built a family home, known variously as the Miami Springs Villas House, Dar-Err-Aha, MSTR No. 2, or Glenn Curtiss House. The Glenn Curtiss House, after years of disrepair and frequent vandalism, is being refurbished to serve as a museum in his honor.
His frequent hunting trips into the Florida Everglades led to a final invention, the Adams Motor "Bungalo", a forerunner of the modern recreational vehicle trailer (named after his business partner and half-brother, G. Carl Adams). Shortly before his death, he designed a tailless aircraft with a V-shaped wing and tricycle landing gear that he hoped could be sold in the price range of a family car.
The Wright Aeronautical Corporation, a successor to the original Wright Company, ultimately merged with the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company on July 5, 1929, forming the Curtiss-Wright company, shortly before Curtiss's death.
Traveling to Rochester to contest a lawsuit brought by former business partner August Herring, Curtiss suffered an attack of appendicitis in court. He died on July 23, 1930, in Buffalo, New York, of complications from an appendectomy. His funeral service was held at St. James Episcopal Church in his home town, Hammondsport, with interment in the family plot at Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Hammondsport.
By an act of Congress on March 1, 1933, Curtiss was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, which now resides in the Smithsonian. Curtiss was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1964, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1990, the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum has a collection of Curtiss's original documents as well as a collection of airplanes, motorcycles and motors. LaGuardia Airport was originally called Glenn H. Curtiss Airport when it began operation in 1929.
The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport is dedicated to Curtiss's life and work.
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|Cover of Time Magazine
13 October 1924