Glenn Hammond Curtiss was born in Hammondsport, at the southern tip of Keuka Lake, New York, on May 21, 1878. At the age of four he was left without a father and lived with his Grandmother. He earned the money for his first bike by working for Eastman Kodak and then became a Western Union delivery boy.
In later years he began to race his bicycle at fairs all over the area. Soon his life was wrapped up in bicycles and racing. At the age of 17 he was the bicycle champion of the Lower Lakes region of New York. His interest in bicycles soon changed when he saw his first motorcycle. To the young Glenn Curtiss the motorcycle was a challenge for his ingenuity and he soon built a better one. In 1902, he formed his own company, the G. H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company, and went into production of his "Hercules" motorcycle. His lightweight air cooled engines were masterpieces. His engines were the best then available in the United States.
In 1904, Curtiss entered a motorcycle race at Ormond Beach, Florida, where he drove one of his V-8 engine powered motorcycles at a speed of one hundred-thirty-seven miles an hour, a record which stood for almost a quarter century. The unsmiling Curtiss was called "the fastest man on earth". Curtiss' entrance into flying began that same year when his engines were discovered by Thomas Scott "Casey" Baldwin who ordered a two-cylinder air-cooled motor of 5-horsepower for his airship, the "Golden Arrow". When it flew, it was proclaimed the first successful dirigible in America.
Godfather of Modern Aviation
by COL (Ret.) Norman S. Marshall and CW4 Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
Glenn Hammond Curtiss
Curtiss and Baldwin were partners for several years, Curtiss supplying the engines for his blimps. He was now well on his way to becoming a success, with bicycle shops and contracts for manufacture of bicycles and motorcycles, and now dirigible motors. The first aeroplane Curtiss had anything to do with was Casey Baldwin's "Red Wing", which Baldwin lofted from the ice at Keuka Lake on March 12, 1908, before a small crowd. The flight was hailed by the local press as "the first public flight by an airplane in the United States." Of course, the Wright brothers contested this assertion as being untrue, as they had been flying since 1904. This contention was to become the beginning of a feud and eventual litigation between the Wright brothers and Curtiss which would last for years.
The fact that the Wright Brothers had made the first powered flight has been accepted, but the achievements of Curtiss spanned several decades and took the airplane from its wood, fabric and wire beginnings to the forerunners of modern transport aircraft. That notwithstanding, so successful were Curtiss' motors that he soon attracted the attention of Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone inventor, who was interested in developing powered aircraft.
Curtiss made his first flight on his 30th birthday May 21, 1908 in the "White Wing", a design of the Aerial Experiment Association, a group led by Alexander Graham Bell. The "White Wing" was heralded as the first plane in America to be controlled by ailerons instead of the wing-warping design used by the Wright brothers. It was also the first plane on wheels this side of the Atlantic.
Curtiss joined the Aerial Experiment Association with Baldwin, J. A. D. McCurdy and Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, on loan from the Army. Each man set out to design an airplane of his own conception. With his skill and genius Curtiss designed his first aeroplane the "June Bug". It was provided with wing flaps, later called ailerons, for lateral control and one of his lightweight V-8 engines. It flew superbly and soon he entered it in the first Scientific American Trophy competition of 1908 requiring a straight flight of one kilometer. During this flight he flew over a mile from the starting point and the trophy was his. His famous July 4th "June Bug" flight was heralded as the first publicly watched flight in America.
Next, in an attempt to take off from the water, he added two canoe-like pontoons to the "June Bug". But no matter how hard he tried he could not take off and abandoned the idea, temporarily. That year the Aeronautical Society of New York ordered a plane for $5,000 and the company he formed with A. M. Herring completed it. Uniquely it had a tricycle gear and was named the "Gold Bug", the first airplane sold commercially in America. It was with this same plane that in 1909 won him the Scientific American Trophy again, this time for establishing a distance record. He flew it in a circuitous path for 25 miles before judges and observers.
He then won the Gordon Bennet Trophy, plus $5,000 prize, in the world's first International Meet held in Rheims, France, in August of the same year. He designed a new plane, the "Golden Flyer", and shipped it to France for the competition. He competed against 40 planes and Europe's top pilots, he went on to solidly win worldwide acclaim.
But when he came home, difficulties arose. One of the major contributions to the progress of flight during this period was the invention of the aileron, which was the basis for the litigious rift between the Wrights and Curtiss. The Wright Brothers claimed his aileron control violated their wing-warping patent. The Wrights brought suit and the court battle lasted for seven years. While the Wright Brothers won the court decision, the aileron control won out in the end. Curtiss was to go on to have several more significant "firsts."
By now, Curtiss had become a dominant figure in aviation and set out to increase the airplane's speed, distance, and endurance. Despite the Wright brothers pending litigation attempting to restrain Curtiss from using ailerons on his planes, thereby restricting him from participating in any competition, the U.S. Federal court lifted the restraining order affording Curtiss with right to participate in the first American International Air Meet. Curtiss set a new speed record of 55 miles per hour at the first American International Air Meet held in Los Angeles.
Joseph Pulitzer, of the New York World newspaper, offered a prize of ten thousand dollars for the first flight down the Hudson River, from Albany to New York. Curtiss built the "Albany Flyer" and made the flight in less than three hours, winning the prize and also final possession of the Scientific American Trophy.
Now the military expressed renewed interest in airplanes. He took aloft Army Lieutenant Fickel who put two 30 caliber bullets into a ground target from 100 feet above and proved that guns could be fired from airplanes. This set off research leading to aerial gunsights. In August he flew across Lake Erie and won the Cleveland Press's $5,000 prize.
He continued the development of his land type airplane and in 1914 delivered his Model J, the forerunner of the most famous American plane of World War I, the "Jenny". In May 1919, three of his recently designed large multi-engine flying boats took off from Long Island, proceeded to Newfoundland and then on to the Azores, where two were forced down. But one, the NC-4, continued on to England and thereby completed the first successful flight across the Atlantic. With the war at an end, he personally retired, although his company continued to design and build history making aircraft. It should also be noted that in World War I Curtiss was the largest American aircraft manufacturer.
In 1930 Glenn Hammond Curtiss was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor. In an anniversary flight he retraced his Albany to New York route of twenty years before. He passed away in July,1930, leaving behind a legacy for the benefit of the entire aviation community.
In September 1910 he established America's first open flying school. Now, the Navy's interest blossomed. A sixty-foot runway was built over the bow of the cruiser BIRMINGHAM and his pilot Eugene B. Ely successfully took off on November fourteenth and the concept of aircraft carriers was born. In response to his generous offer, the Navy sent Lieutenant Theodore Ellyson to San Diego to take free flight instructions. Experiments were now in earnest. The PENNSYLVANIA was fitted with a 125 foot runway and Ely flew to the ship and successfully landed with the aid of deck arresting ropes. Shortly thereafter he took off again. However, the Navy still insisted it badly needed an airplane that was able to take off and land on the water. He finally succeeded in designing a float that would break loose from the water and the seaplane gracefully took off in January,1911.
Several weeks later he brilliantly conceived of putting retractable wheels alongside the float so he could amphibiously land on ground or the water. Lieutenant Ellyson flew a later version ordered by the Navy with relative ease and it was designated the A-1 and affectionately called the "Triad" for it could carry a man on land, sea, or air. But still there remained the difficult problem of launching a plane from a ship which had no deck. A memorable experiment was undertaken when Ellyson made a successful take-off from a three wire cable runway at Lake Keuka. Curtiss had really conceived of his seaplane as a "flying boat" rather than as a floating airplane. To this end, Curtiss added a boat hull for the pilot and passenger and successfully flew it in January of 1912.
In 1912, with the assistance of Lawrence Sperry, Curtiss began to test a new gyroscopic stabilizer, the first "automatic pilot". Two years later, in 1914, Curtiss was asked by the Smithsonian Institution to determine the ability of Langley's "Aerodrome" to fly. It had previously failed in two early attempts in 1903. He agreed and made significant alterations and it successfully flew, starting a controversy that was to rage for thirty years.
The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company's HS-I production line as it appeared on Armistice Day of 1918.