The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss

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America has long been celebrated as a nation of inventive tinkerers. As President Grant’s patent commissioner remarked a century ago, “our merchants invent, our soldiers and sailors invent, our schoolmasters invent, our professional men invent, aye, our women and children invent.” On occasion one of these tinkerers among us is touched with enough genius to influence history. Glenn Hammond Curtiss is a case in point.

Glenn Curtiss was one of a select handful of true aviation pioneers. His eye-catching, record-breaking flights did more to make his countrymen air-minded than even the Wright brothers. He invented the first practical seaplane and flying boat and taught the United States Navy to fly. He was an innovator in aircraft construction, engines, and control systems. He led in founding the American aviation industry. Yet for all of that his career had its bumpy moments, most notably a bitter feud with the Wright brothers that shook the aeronautical world.

Like the Wrights, the pride of Dayton, Ohio, Glenn Curtiss was deeply rooted in small-town Middle America. Hammondsport, New York, where he was born in 1878, was a village of a thousand or so on Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes region. In those days Hammondsport was known for just one thing, its fine wine grapes, but Curtiss would widen its fame.

At age fourteen he completed the eighth grade and set about making his way in the world. His first job was stencilling numbers on rolls of film in George Eastman’s Kodak plant in Rochester. He promptly figured out a way to speed up the process tenfold. Factory routine soon bored him, however, and he hired on with Western Union to deliver telegrams by bicycle—and began a lifelong fascination with speed. He entered all the local bicycle races and won most of them. At nineteen he took a wife and a steadier job as photographer for a Hammondsport studio, canvassing the countryside to take family portraits and cover weddings. But the prospect of tinkering won out over the routine of picture taking, and in 1900 Curtiss went into business for himself, opening a bicycle shop in his hometown.

 

(In that year of 1900 two other bicycle-shop proprietors, Wilbur and Orville Wright, made their first trip to the windy shores of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to test their flight theories with a glider. Encouraging them was sixty-eight-year-old Octave Chanute, the American pioneer in gliding experiments. In Washington, Dr. Samuel P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was at work on a tandem-winged flying machine he called an Aerodrome. Langley’s close friend Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, was conducting aerodynamic studies with unique kites. Aeronautical experimentation, for years a European preserve, was shifting to the United States.)

 
 
 

In Curtiss’ view the one thing wrong with a bicycle was that it had to be pedalled. He cobbled together a crude onecylinder gasoline engine, fashioning the carburetor from a half-pint tomato can, and installed it in one of his bicycles. The resulting motorcycle was more noisy than efficient, but he had found an avocation.

By 1903 Curtiss was one of Hammondsport’s leading businessmen and certainly its fastest citizen. The G. H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company marketed its own makes of bicycle and motorcycle, and on Memorial Day that year he dazzled the motorcycling fraternity by setting a world onemile speed record of nearly 64 miles an hour. Yet his sporting-press label of the “hell-rider” was hyperbole. Lean and wiry, with a thick mustache and piercing eyes, he spoke little and smiled less. His characteristic frown was not a sign of unfriendliness but rather the mark of a tinkerer preoccupied with some mechanical problem. He had not the faintest trace of what is now called charisma.

(Twice in 1903 Dr. Langley tried to get his Aerodrome airborne, and twice the plane and its pilot, Charles M. Manly, tumbled into the Potomac River. Manly was unhurt, but the press pilloried Langley. Editorial writers said that man was not born to fly and declared that the good doctor had better things to do than fritter away fifty thousand dollars in taxpayers’ money provided by the War Department to develop an aerial observation craft. When the Wright brothers made their trailblazing flights at Kitty Hawk on December 17, nine days after Langley’s second failure, the press paid little attention.)

 

The man responsible for exposing Curtiss to “aerial navigation” was Thomas Scott Baldwin, a veteran circus performer and parachute jumper. “Captain Tom” Baldwin saw in lighter-than-air craft a profitable exhibition attraction. What he needed was a light and powerful engine, and that led him, in 1904, to Hammondsport and the G. H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company. Although Baldwin was twice as old as Curtiss and fifty times as flamboyant, the two hit it off immediately. Captain Tom’s airship California Arrow , powered by a Curtiss motorcycle engine, was an instant star at expositions and county fairs.