Glenn Hammond Curtiss
Glenn Hammond Curtiss was born May 21, 1878 in Hammondsport, New York to Frank Richmond Curtiss and Lua Andrews. He was an American aviation 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 (AEA), 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 and 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 inter-war and World War II eras.
Although Glenn Curtiss only attended school to Grade 8, his early interest in mechanics and inventions was evident at his first job at the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, which later became the famously successful 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.
March 7, 1898, Curtiss married Lena Pearl Neff, daughter of Guy L. Neff and his wife, in Hammondsport, New York. They stayed married until Curtiss’ death and had two children together.
Curtiss began his career as a bicycle racer and a Western Union bicycle messenger, He later owned a bicycle shop. 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 via 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, who manufactured the 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 Curtiss on his “Hell Rider” motorcycle in an endurance race from New York to Cambridge, Maryland.
In 1907, Curtiss set an unofficial world record of 136.36 miles per hour on a 40 horsepower 4000 cc V8-powered motorcycle of his own design and construction. The air-cooled F-head engine was intended for use in aircraft.
Curtiss would remain “the fastest man in the world,” to use 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.
Alexander Graham Bell, who regarded Curtiss as “the greatest motor expert in the country” invited him to develop a suitable engine for heavier-than-air experimental flight in 1907. At that time, Bell and invited Curtiss to join his Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) and Curtiss immediately took him up on the offer.
The AEA produced four aircraft during 1908 – 1910, 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, Curtiss flew 5,080 feet, to win the Scientific American Trophy and its $2,500 purse. This was considered to be the first pre-announced public flight of a heavier-than-air flying machine in America. 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; Orville Wright received license #5.
The flight of the June Bug propelled Glenn 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 1909-1910 Curtiss employed a number of demonstration pilots including Eugene Ely, Charles “C.K.” Hamilton 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 competed in the world’s first air meet, the Grande Semaine d’Aviation flying contest at Rheims, 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. There were two Wright aircraft which had been modified with a landing gear; the Wright brothers did not win any events. Curtiss went on to win the overall speed event, the Gordon Bennett Cup, a 20 km course at 46.5 miles per hour in just under 16 minutes, six seconds faster than runner-up Louis Blériot.
In May 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 flight and 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. It was here that he trained Lt. Theodore Ellyson, who was to become 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. 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”.
Curtiss was able to develop a float plane design, through the course of that winter that would enable 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 amphibian 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 amphibian. 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 A-1 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 the retired English naval officer John Cyril Porte who was looking for a partner to produce an aircraft with him in order 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 the “step”, in the hull that Porte had 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. In collaboration with Porte, Curtiss designed 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’s Seaplane Experimental Station, 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 back 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 American built aircraft that saw combat in World War I.
In early 1916, it was feared that the United States would 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 a two-seater trainer. Curtiss created the JN-4 “Jenny” for the Army as well as the N-9 seaplane version for the Navy. It is one of the most famous products of the Curtiss Company. 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-engine flying boat large enough to hold a crew of five, which became known as the NC-4.
The Wright brothers filed a patent lawsuit against Curtiss in 1909 which 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.
Wartime contracts were cancelled when peace came at the end of the war. 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 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.
Upon moving to Florida in 1920s, there were 18 corporations he had founded. Curtiss 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, or the Glenn Curtiss House. The Glenn Curtiss House, after years of disrepair and frequent vandalism, it has been refurbished and now serves 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 Curtiss’ death, he designed a tailless aircraft with a V-shape 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 5 July 1929, forming the Curtiss-Wright company, just before Glenn Curtiss’s death.
Traveling to Rochester, New York to contest a law suit brought by former business partner, August Herring, Curtiss suffered an attack of appendicitis in court. He died in 1930 in Buffalo, New York, of complications from an appendectomy. His funeral service was held at St. James Episcopal Church in his hometown, Hammondsport, New York, with interment in the family plot at Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Hammondsport.
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.
The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York is dedicated to Curtiss’s life and work.
- 1878 Birth in Hammondsport, New York
- 1898 Marriage
- 1900 Manufactures Hercules bicycles
- 1901 Motorcycle designer and racer
- 1903 American motorcycle champion
- 1903 Unofficial one-mile motorcycle land speed record 64 mph on Hercules V8 at Yonkers, New York
- 1904 Thomas Scott Baldwin mounts Curtiss motorcycle engine on a hydrogen filled dirigible
- 1904 Set 10-mile world speed record
- 1904 Invented handlebar throttle control; handlebar throttle control also credited to the 1867–1969 Roper steam velocipede
- 1905 Created G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company, Inc.
- 1906 Curtiss writes the Wright brothers offering them an aeronautical motor
- 1907 Curtiss joins Alexander Graham Bell in experimenting in aircraft
- 1907 Set world motorcycle land speed record of 77.6 mph
- 1907 Set world motorcycle land speed record at 136.36 mph in his V8 motorcycle in Ormond Beach, Florida
- 1908 First Army dirigible flight with Curtiss as flight engineer
- 1908 One of several claimants for the first flight of an aircraft controlled by ailerons
- 1908 Lead designer and pilot of “June Bug” on July 4
- 1909 Sale of Curtiss’s “Golden Flyer” to the New York Aeronautic Society for $5,000.00 USD, marks the first sale of any aircraft in the U.S., triggers Wright Brothers lawsuits.
- 1909 Won first international air speed record with 46.5 mph in Rheims, France
- 1909 First U.S. licensed aircraft manufacturer.
- 1909 Established first flying school in United States and exhibition company
- 1910 Long distance flying record of 150 miles from Albany, NY to New York City
- 1910 First simulated bombing runs from an aircraft at Lake Keuka
- 1910 First firearm use from aircraft, piloted by Curtiss
- 1910 First radio communication with aircraft in flight in a Curtiss biplane
- 1910 Trained Blanche Stuart Scott, the first American female pilot
- 1910 First successful takeoff from a United States Navy ship (Eugene Burton Ely, using Curtiss Plane)
- 1911 First landing on a ship (Eugene Burton Ely, using Curtiss Plane) (2 Months later)
- 1911 Pilot license #1 issued for his “June Bug” flight
- 1911 Ailerons patented
- 1911 Developed first successful pontoon aircraft in U.S.
- 1911 Hydroplane A-1 Triad purchased by U.S. Navy (US Navy’s First aircraft)
- 1911 First dual pilot control in May
- 1911 Developed first retractable landing gear on his Hydroaeroplane
- 1911 His first aircraft sold to U.S. Army on April 27
- 1911 Created first military flying school
- 1912 Developed and flew the first flying boat on Lake Keuka
- 1912 First ship catapult launching on October 12 (Lt. Ellyson)
- 1912 Created the first flying school in Florida at Miami Beach
- 1914 Start production run of “Jennys” and may other models including flying boats
- 1917 Opens “Experimental Airplane Factory” in Garden City, Long Island
- 1919 Curtiss NC-4 flying boat crosses the Atlantic
- 1919 Commenced private aircraft production with the Oriole
- 1921 Developed Hialeah, Florida including Hialeah Park Race Track
- 1921 Donated his World War I training field to the Navy
- 1923 Developed Miami Springs, Florida and created a flying school and airport
- 1923 (circa) Created first airboats
- 1925 Builds his Miami Springs mansion.
- 1926 Developed Opa-locka, Florida and airport facility
- 1928 Created the Curtiss Aerocar Company in Opa-locka, Florida.
- 1928 Curtiss towed an Aerocar from Miami to New York in 39 hours
- 1930 Death in Buffalo, New York
- 1930 Buried in Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Hammondsport, New York
- 1964 Inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame
- 1990 Inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in the air racing category
Born: May 21, 1878 Hammondsport, New York
Died: July 23, 1930 (aged 52) Buffalo, New York