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The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss
The fastest man in the air competed with the Wrights for ten years, became rich, and awakened America to the air age.
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
They did just that. Orville Wright wrote to Curtiss that he understood June Bug had “movable surfaces at the tips of the wings, adjustable to different angles on the right and left sides for maintaining the lateral balance.” He reminded Curtiss that earlier in the year, in response to a query from Lieutenant Selfridge, he and his brother had informed the AEA of their patent, and he added a warning: “We did not intend, of course, to give permission to use the patented features of our machine for exhibitions or in a commercial way.”
This letter was the opening salvo of a long war. The Wrights were in a predicament. After many frustrations they had finally generated interest in their “Flyers” on the part of both the United States Army and a French syndicate, and it must have come as a shock when June Bug hit the headlines. Just six months before, in a letter to his confidante Octave Chanute, Wilbur had predicted that “an independent solution of the flying problem would require at least five years.” Now they hastened to protect what they believed was theirs. Wilbur’s spectacular flight demonstrations in France in August, 1908, and Orville’s equally spectacular performances in the army trials held at Fort Myer, Virginia, in September proved the brothers still very much in the aviation lead. But the pack was snapping at their heels.
The Fort Myer trials made other news as well. One of Baldwin’s airships, with Captain Tom at the controls and Curtiss at the engine, passed its tests to become Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1. A second event was tragic. In his role as army observer the AEA ’S Tom Selfridge was flying as Orville Wright’s passenger when a propeller blade broke. The craft plunged to the ground, injuring Wright seriously and Selfridge critically. The young lieutenant died on the operating table three hours later, the airplane’s first victim.
Aviation had come of age in 1908. First Curtiss and the Aerial Experiment Association wakened American interest in flying, then the Wrights demonstrated the airplane’s capabilities to the whole world. Whatever the promise of “aerial navigation,” Curtiss was determined to cash in on it. The AEA seemed to him too scientifically high-minded for such a goal, so he defected from the Bell group; and on March 19, 1909, the Herring-Curtiss Company was incorporated for the purpose of manufacturing “balloons, aeroplanes, airships, [and] flying machines of any and all types. …”
There was a streak of naiveté in Curtiss, never more evident than in his choice of a partner for this pioneering business venture. Augustus M. Herring’s characteristic role was sniffing around the edges of the aviation community like some sort of aeronautical hyena. He had been associated for a time with both Chanute and Langley, who had confessed they were glad to be rid of him. He even tried to insert himself into the Wrights’ operation as nothing less than a full partner—and was coldly ignored. Herring’s line was that back in 1898 he had made the first powered heavier-than-air flight—not the slightest proof of which has ever surfaced—and possessed aeronautical patents in abundance.
One thing Herring certainly did have was a convincing manner. His sole contribution to the new company was to be patents, one of which covered a device for automatic stability and supposedly sidestepped any confrontation with the Wright patent. For his part Curtiss put up the entire Hammondsport facilities of his flourishing business in engines, motorcycles, and bicycles, which had shown a $120,000 profit the previous year. (In Curtiss’ defense it should be noted that Herring gulled Captain Tom Baldwin and the millionaire president of the Aero Club, Courtlandt Field Bishop, into joining the venture. Both of them, far more worldly than Curtiss, should have known better.)
In any event, all was rosy as the Herring-Curtiss Company embarked on its first project, a plane Curtiss contracted for with the Aeronautical Society of New York. Christened Gold Bug , it was a sharp break with the AEA configuration. Curtiss abandoned the arched wings for sturdier parallel wings, replaced the wing-tip ailerons with a pair of larger ailerons mounted between the wings, reduced the wing span for greater speed, and mounted a watercooled engine for greater reliability.
One thing Curtiss retained from his AEA experience was his appreciation for publicity. In June of 1909 he began a series of exhibition flights at Morris Park, just north of Manhattan, that seized the imagination of the nation’s largest city. It was a shrewd move, not unlike bringing a musical polished up out of town to Broadway. In July he scored another coup, winning the Scientific American Trophy for the second time with a flight of nearly twentyfive miles.
All this was a publicity windfall, but Curtiss was looking toward something more spectacular. He was to be the lone American entry in the French-sponsored International Air Meet at Rheims, the world’s first aviation contest. His craft was a refined version of Gold Bug , with one major difference: he was going to Rheims with a new and more powerful v-8 engine, just as he had gone to Ormond Beach with an advanced motorcycle engine to win the crown of “fastest man on earth.”