The July 4th, 1908 public demonstration of the June Bug had been put on hold several hours due to the weather. The crowd was frustrated and so was Curtiss. When a pessimistic photographer set up his camera short of the kilometer mark it was the final straw for Curtiss. He climbed aboard the machine and “flew like a real June bug,” weaving to avoid obstructions, passing the one-kilometer flag, and continuing on. “Just on account of (the unidentified photographer),” Curtiss wrote, “who was standing at the finish with a camera to photograph the machine in case I fell short on the distance, I flew the machine as far as the field would permit, regardless of fences, ditches, etc.”
- Credited with the development of ailerons, which resulted in a lawsuit by the Wright Brothers who claimed ailerons infringed on their wing warping concept.
- Curtiss started building lightweight engines used in flights.
- In 1907, he joined the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) headed by Alexander Graham Bell.
- In 1908, 1909 and 1910 he won the Scientific American Trophy with planes built by Alexander Graham Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association.
Born in Hammondsport, New York in 1878, Curtiss’s father died when he was only four years old, leaving young Glenn to grow up under the direction of his grandmother. Fostering his need for speed, she purchased Curtiss his first bicycle and he repaid his grandmother by dropping out of school. With no formal education, Curtiss became a Western Union delivery boy, but his bike-riding abilities grew beyond delivering messages and he became a champion rider at county fairs throughout the state.
Curtiss did not only race bikes, he also opened a cycle repair shop and manufactured some of his own bicycles. His designs were extremely popular, and to manage the demand, he opened branch shops. With the advent of motorized engines making its presence in the United States, Curtiss, fascinated by the possibilities, added an engine to his bicycle. Remarking on his first attempt to build a motorcycle, Curtiss explained, “…it almost tore itself loose from the frame.”
In 1902 friends and bankers backed the new company, G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company, which began producing the Hercules motorcycle. His lightweight air cooled engines were masterpieces, and then, the best available in the United States.
Curtiss and his dare-devil attitude produced motorcycles, and he continued to race them. In 1903 Curtiss was the first American Motorcycle Champion, establishing a world record mile at 56.4 seconds. In 1904 he set a ten mile speed record and that same year he invented the handlebar throttle. Curtiss was nicknamed the “fastest man in the world” when he drove one of his V-8 engine powered motorcycles at a speed of 136.36 miles an hour, a record which stood for almost a quarter century.
With the success of his engines, it was not long before he was contacted by early aviators to supply engines for their new aircrafts. The first to meet with Curtiss was Captain Thomas Scott Baldwin, early aviation daredevil and showman. Baldwin ordered a two-cylinder air-cooled motor of 5 horsepower for his airship, the California Arrow. The California Arrow’s first flight is considered the first successful dirigible flight in America.
Now, well on his way to entering the aviation business; Curtiss attracted the attention of Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone inventor, in 1908. Interested in developing powered aircraft, Curtiss joined the Aerial Experiment Association, AEA, with Dr. Bell, Casey, Baldwin, J.A.D. McCurdy and Lt. Tom Selfridge. With his skill and genius Curtiss designed the June Bug, providing it with wing flaps, later called ailerons, for lateral control and one of his lightweight V-8 engines. Curtiss entered the June Bug, the AEA’s third aircraft, into the first Scientific American Trophy Competition of 1908, this required the plane to fly one kilometer. Succeeding in the flight, the plane flew farther than required and became the first officially observed and recognized flight in America on July 4th, 1908.
Competing in the International Meet in Rheims, France, in August 1909, Curtiss was the lone American entry. Using his newly designed airplane, the Golden Flyer, Curtiss competed against 40 of Europe’s top planes and pilots. he won the first Gordon Bennett Trophy with an average speed of 46 miles per hour.
Curtiss courted the Navy for years before he finally convinced them of the potential of naval aviation. In the early discussions, Curtiss took Army Lt. Fickel aloft to prove that guns could be fired from an airplane. Lt. Fickel put two 30 caliber bullets into a ground target from 100 feet away. These shots were the first tests of aerial marksmanship. Eugene Ely, who was a test pilot for Curtiss, successfully launched his plane from a makeshift wooden deck on the USS Birmingham on November 14th, 1910. Two months later, Ely was the first person to land a plane and took off from the deck of the battleship Pennsylvania on January 18th, 1911. The Navy, however, had other ideas for naval airplanes. The plane, thought the Navy, must be able to take off and land on water as not to interfere with the combat capabilities of the ship. Curtiss completed a hydroplane and on February 17th, 1911 he flew it out close to the USS Pennsylvania and was then hoisted onto the ship. To return to land, Curtiss was lowered to the water where he took off.
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. Curtiss’ manufacturing plants were inundated with wartime requests for Jennies and at its peak, the company opened an additional plant and employed 10,000 people.
Tragically, in 1930, while having surgery for an appendicitis, Curtiss suffered a small blood clot, and his life ended at the age of 52. Glenn Curtiss made innumerable contributions to early aviation, including: producing and selling the first private airplane, receiving pilot’s license #1, design and construction of the first successful pontoon aircraft in America, invention of dual pilot control, and finally the design of retractable landing gear.
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