Glenn Curtiss – Deserving a Place in Aviation History
“The first scheduled flight on earth…July 04, 1908”.
To begin this story about Glenn Curtiss – deserving a place in aviation history, let me give you an interesting bit of trivia. Time magazine, that venerable fountain of knowledge and opinion maker published a picture of Orville Wright on its cover in the issue dated December 3, 1928 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Aeronautics. This was the first time any of the brothers made it to the cover of Time magazine.
Guess when the magazine put Glenn Curtiss on its cover? October 13, 1924. A full four years beforeany of the Wright brothers made it there.
This shows Curtiss’ position in the aviation world even while the Wright brothers were actively flying. There was great competition between the Wrights and Curtiss, resulting in several long running lawsuits. Many who have followed the history of that era would have no hesitation in saying that the Wrights were overly defensive about their invention. Glenn Curtiss, on the other hand, seems to have shrugged his shoulders and continued to define new roles for himself and for aviation.
Figure 1 - Curtiss on Time Magazine
From Cycles to Aviation
Born in 1878 in Hammondsport, New York, Glenn Hammond Curtiss was formally educated up to grade eight. Nevertheless, his mechanical abilities showed up in his first job itself. At the Eastman Company where worked first, he produced a stencil machine that was promptly adopted for use in the plant. Later, his interest shifted to bicycles (he was a messenger boy for Western Union) and as the internal combustion engine became more common, he moved on to motorcycles.
This stint with motorcycles (including a new design of using a 4000 cc engine built for an aircraft) was not a waste of time. Curtiss got an unparalleled education in airplane engines and went on to design engines that were reliable, light and very high performance. There was a period when many races were won by planes flying Curtiss engines.
Aviation in the early 1900s was still finding its feet and there were many claims and counterclaims on inventions. When Curtiss announced his invention of the Aileron, the Wright brothers promptly challenged it as their own. The resulting lawsuits carried on for years.
Many are of the view that the tussle between the Wrights and Curtiss hampered the growth of aviation in its early years. The Wright brothers got so engrossed in defending their invention that they neglected to develop it much beyond what they had achieved at Kitty Hawk. Glenn Curtiss was different, he truly was deserving a place in aviation history. He let his lawyers fight the suits and continued to work on aviation.
Figure 2 - Aero Club Pilot's License #1 (Glenn Curtiss)
Pilot License # 1
So what is Curtiss famous for? To begin matters, he carried out the first publically announced flight. This was on July 4, 1908, in this flight he climbed to 5080 feet and won the Scientific American Trophy. Shortly afterwards, the Aero Club of America began issuing pilot licenses. Since they were issued in alphabetical order for the first lot of pilots, Curtiss was awarded license number 1, Orville Wright got number 5!
What assured Curtiss’ name in aviation history is not the number of races he won in the US and abroad (there were many) but the practical uses he put the airplane to.
The Father of Naval Aviation
Curtiss recognized early on that aviation could influence the outcome of military battles. As early as 1910, he demonstrated the possibility of aerial bombing and himself carried out a demonstration of gun firing on ground targets from an aircraft. Soon thereafter came a game changer – the first take off of an aircraft from a ship. On November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely, a pilot working with Curtiss took off from a temporary flight deck on US Birmingham (stationary in harbor) and landed conventionally on land a little later. The picture above shows the historic moment when a frail machine marked the beginning of naval aviation.
Figure 3 - The First Carrier Take Off
The take off from a ship was soon followed by a takeoff and landing on a ship. Once again Eugene Ely was on the controls. This demonstrated the feasibility of naval aviation being able to project power well beyond national boundaries and began a process that ultimately led to the aircraft carrier taking over from the battleship as the principal tool of power projection.
Curtiss’ preoccupation with air power and the sea did not end here. Even while the first aircraft carrier experiments were on, he was experimenting with pontoons and motor cycle tubes on wings of airplanes to build sea planes and amphibious planes. The Navy loved him for this and the association between the two lasted several decades. On February 24, 1911 he demonstrated a plane that could land and take off from both water and land. Soon thereafter, he sold the first aircraft to the Navy, this was the A-1 Triad, a truly amphibious aircraft with a single large pontoon for over water operations. The A-1 was built primarily built for sea operations and also featured a retractable landing gear. A-1 Triads were soon purchased by Russia, Japan, Germany and Britain as well.
Figure 4 - A-1 Triad
The beginning of the First World War saw a number of Curtiss’ seaplanes in active service; they were the only American design in service at that time. Later when a need arose for trainer airplanes, Curtiss responded with the JN-4 Jenny for the Army and the N9 Seaplane version for the Navy. Thousands were built and soon after the War, surplus Jennies were sold off to barnstormers who went on to write a colorful chapter of their own in American aviation history.
With the end of the War, a consolidation occurred in the Aviation industry and Curtiss sold out his stock in his company. He carried on as a Director and helped in design and development till his death from complications arising from appendicitis.
A Busy Inventor
In an active flying and designing career spanning two decades and a little more, Curtiss was responsible for more close to 500 innovations, He received several patents including one for Ailerons (in association with Alexander Graham Bell). A short list of his innovations and designs shows how great his influence on aviation was and how much he contributed. Just see the table below to get a flavor of the mind of this genius –
Wind Tunnel design
Hydro Aeroplane (seaplane)
Tricycle landing gear
Single hull flying boat
Laminated wood propeller and forming machine
Aerodynamically balanced rudder
Enclosed cockpit design
Steel propeller design
Reduction gear for propeller
Steering system for landing gear
Wheel brakes for airplanes
Gyroscopic aircraft stabilizer (with Sperry)
Electrically operated throttle control
Figure 5 -- Stamp on Glenn Curtiss
No historian or commentator has discussed Glenn Curtiss as a team player. This also deserves a mention. Throughout his life, Curtiss worked with teams. You may remember that it was an employee who demonstrated deck take offs and landings. Similarly, the flying boat was developed in conjunction with John Cyril Porte, a retired British Naval officer. Many developments were in coordination with Alexander Graham Bell. It is notable that there were no tussles for control or for recognition. This is perhaps one reason why Curtiss was able to achieve so much more than other aviation greats who were confined to their personal achievements.
Starting as a message delivery boy and going on to create great innovations and inventions that pushed the envelope of aviation and formed the backbone of a war effort, Glenn Curtiss’ contribution to aviation is valuable and deserving a place in aviation history.
Poster Celebrating The Achievements of Glenn Curtiss
And not even in an airplane!
As was true of so many early aviation pioneers Glenn Curtiss was interested in anything that moved – and moved fast.
In 1907 Glenn Curtiss rode his Curtiss Motorcycle with an 8 cylinder 40 horsepower engine at Ormond Beach, Florida on January 23rd, covering a mile in just 25 and 2/5 seconds!
The motorcycle was considered better than Harley-Davidson, Indian, Merkel and other motorcycles when experts compared other motorcycles to the Curtiss Motorcycle. The attached brochure states “Exhaustive tests by experts such as Mr. Brush, designer of the Brush, Cadillac & Oakland automobiles. Henry Ford of Ford Auto together with Police Departments, Hill Climbers, Track & Endurance Racers all give Curtiss Motors the unanimous choice over NSU, Harley-Davidson, Indian, Merkel, R-S, Excelsior & three others.”
Ah, those were the days!
Photo of the Month
Photo of Glenn Curtiss
John M. White, Editor
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