The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss


(During 1904 and 1905, outside Dayton, the Wrights literally learned to fly, executing such maneuvers as figure eights and staying aloft for more than a half hour at a time. No powered heavier-than-air craft anywhere else in the world had even gotten off the ground, and would not do so for a year. Their flying was done openly but included no officially witnessed “public” demonstrations. Rather than acclaim the Wrights were seeking patent protection and financial reward, and to shield their invention they stopped flying entirely for two and a half years after 1905. As a consequence few so-called experts would recognize their primacy in aviation for a long time to come.)

With his bicycle and motorcycle business booming, Glenn Curtiss at first had only a monetary interest in aviation; as he remarked to a friend, “I get twice as much money for my motors from those aviation cranks.” Baldwin moved his operations to Hammondsport to be near his power supply, and Curtiss’ neighbors grew accustomed to seeing the awkward airships floating by overhead or coming down in their vineyards.

Curtiss’ tinkering was then centered on engines. His latest creation was a big air-cooled v-8 of 40 horsepower, which he mounted in a beefed-up motorcycle chassis. In January, 1907, when he headed south for a “speed carnival” at Florida’s Ormond Beach, he took the v-8 monster along to see what it could do. What it did was astonishing. Setting off without benefit of even a test run, Curtiss thundered down the beach and through the measured mile at 136.3 miles an hour, the fastest any man had ever travelled. The mark lasted until 1911, when it was broken by a racing car; as a motorcycle record it stood for twenty-three years. An airplane did not exceed it until World War I. Newspapers proclaimed Glenn Curtiss “the fastest man on earth.”

On his way to Florida, Curtiss had stopped off in Washington at the invitation of the celebrated Alexander Graham Bell. Bell’s invention of the telephone thirty-one years before had furnished him the financial security and the leisure to indulge his myriad scientific interests, and his current interest was aeronautics, specifically large kites made of hundreds of tetrahedron-shaped cells that looked like nothing so much as enormous honeycombs. Such kites, Bell explained, would be eminently flyable due to their inherent stability. All that was needed was a power plant.

While properly deferential to the world-famous inventor, Curtiss had private doubts about the practicability of a powered kite. Still, he was always willing to sell engines to aviation cranks. But Bell wanted Curtiss himself as much as his engines and offered him twenty-five dollars a day and expenses if he would join the Bell entourage at the inventor’s summer home in Nova Scotia to conduct aeronautical experiments. “Twenty-five dollars a day to lie around on the lawn and talk flying!” Curtiss exclaimed to his shop foreman. “Sure, I’ll take him up on that.”

The result, at the end of the summer of 1907, was the Aerial Experiment Association. In additon to Bell and Curtiss the AEA had three younger members: Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge, United States Army, on special assignment to learn all there was to know about aviation; John A. McCurdy, the son of one of Bell’s assistants and a student at the University of Toronto; and Frederick “Casey” Baldwin, a friend of McCurdy’s and a recent Toronto engineering graduate. They decided not to limit themselves to Bell’s kites but to investigate flying machines of any sort. Their slogan was simple and direct: “To get into the air.”

The AEA was a wholly new experience for Glenn Curtiss. A self-made backyard linkerer with a grade-school education and little talent for scientific theorizing, he was strong on practicality and had a sure touch with things mechanical. The white-bearded sixty-year-old Bell, on the other hand, exhibited a hyperactive scientific curiosity. Gathered at the patriarch’s feet were his young disciples, Selfridge, McCurdy, and Casey Baldwin, college-trained and enthusiastic, eager to be off into the wild blue. In this environment Curtiss was at first even more reticent and withdrawn than usual, but eventually the graciousness of Bell and his wife and the infectious excitement of the three younger men enlisted him in the cause.

When Bell’s tetrahedral kite was demolished in a mishap, the group proceeded with their first aerodrome (the term adopted by Bell in memory of his friend Langley, who had died in 1906). Shifting operations to Hammondsport, the AEA began an experimental program with gliders. By now the townspeople were used to the strange goings-on at the Curtiss shop up on Castle Hill, and they hardly blinked an eye at the sight of grown men grasping frail gliders and galloping down snow-covered hillsides to soar into the air.

The AEA members collected all the aeronautical literature they could find, including the patent newly granted to the Wrights, and their first aircraft was a blend of others’ ideas as well as their own. It was a biplane with a forward horizontal elevator and a rudder on bamboo outriggers in back. The silk-covered wings were arched toward each other at the tips, a novel attempt to achieve lateral stability. The lightweight v-8 engine of the type Curtiss had used to set his Ormond Beach speed record turned a pusher propeller and was mounted behind the legless kitchen chair that served as the pilot’s seat.