The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss


These were Glenn Curtiss’ happiest years. Augustus Herring was gone, and the Hammondsport facilities were back in his hands. His exhibition pilots were getting all the bookings they could handle. Two flying schools were busy teaching fledgling aviators from all over the world. Enough plane orders were coming in from the military, from private buyers, and from overseas so that the Hammondsport plant had to put on a night shift. The Wright suit was still making its slow and expensive way through the courts, scaring off most other competitors, but Curtiss was confident enough he would win to push ahead full tilt.

His widening fame hardly touched him. He still prowled the shop, rolling up his sleeves to overhaul an engine, tossing out ideas, sketching a design for a pontoon or a control system, working with his long-time foreman Henry Kleckler on the prototype of the famous ox-5 engine. John H. Towers, one of his student pilots who would one day be chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, recalled the relaxed atmosphere of the place. Blueprints were nonexistent, Towers noted. Instead Curtiss and Kleckler drew sketches on the walls of the shop for the guidance of the workmen. One day a new employee was told to clean up the shop, and in his eagerness to please he whitewashed the walls. The first navy plane order was delayed two weeks while everyone pitched in to work out again such details as proper wing areas and control placements.

This pleasant life went into a tailspin in January, 1914, when a federal circuit court of appeals upheld the Wright patent-infringement suit and granted a permanent injunction. An aviation monopoly was a reality. Orville Wright assured the press that he would follow a “policy of leniency” toward all who applied for licenses—all except Glenn Curtiss. There would be no leniency for Curtiss, he said, and the full 20 per cent royalty per machine would be demanded, retroactive to 1909. Curtiss and his lawyer searched frantically for a loophole. Unless new evidence was uncovered to buttress a fresh legal approach, the company would be in deep financial waters. Their search led to the unsavory climax of the Wright-Curtiss feud—what some have called the Hammondsport Hoax.

With the cooperation of the Smithsonian Institution arrangements were made to exhume the old Langley 1903 Aerodrome, refurbish it at the Curtiss plant in Hammondsport, and flight-test it. If it could be demonstrated that Langley’s original Aerodrome had been capable of flight before the Wrights’ success and without using their control system, that it had been balked only by a faulty catapult launching device, it would shake the basic Wright contention that their patent was entitled to the broadest interpretation.

In April, 1914, the battered old machine was packed in a freight car and delivered to Hammondsport. On May 28, “restored” and equipped with floats and with Curtiss himself at the controls, it skimmed down Keuka Lake and became airborne for some five seconds. Samuel Langley, the press declared, was vindicated. After a later series of extensive modifications and flight tests to study the Langley tandem-wing arrangement, the Aerodrome was returned to the Smithsonian, restored to its original configuration, and put on display as “the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.”

Nothing of the sort had been proved. As a furious Orville Wright was to demonstrate, the Langley machine had been importantly altered before the Curtiss flight. Modifying the aged engine to bring it close to its original horsepower was no doubt defensible. But the installation of floats and their bracing substantially strengthened the dragonflylike wings and improved their aerodynamic properties—and it was in wing design that Langley’s flight theories had been weakest. The Aerodrome that Curtiss flew in May, 1914, was simply not the same Aerodrome that twice utterly failed to achieve flight in 1903.

Curtiss was certainly aware of the stakes when he undertook the project. As he wrote to a friend, if the Langley machine could be coaxed to fly, “we would get a better [legal] decision next time?’ His new lawyer encouraged the experiment, and he was someone worth listening to: W. Benton Crisp, the spearhead of Henry Ford’s successful assault on the monopolistic auto patent of George Seiden. But whether Curtiss and his foreman Henry Kleckler consciously plotted a fraud is less sure. Both vigorously denied it, and being seat-of-the-pants tinkerers they may have been unaware of the finer aerodynamic changes they were actually making. In any case, everyone involved came out with honor tarnished.

Over the years there had grown up an unofficial cadre of “friends of Langley,” centered around the Smithsonian. The Wrights’ prickly defense of their aeronautical primacy and their attempt at a monopoly had not endeared them to this group, whose aim was to vindicate Langley and reduce the power of the Wrights. The Hammondsport trials of the Aerodrome brought the simmering feud to heat. That Langley’s successor as Smithsonian secretary, Charles D. Walcott, permitted Curtiss to conduct an experiment that might overturn the legal judgment against him was perhaps an impropriety. That the Institution sent as its official observer Dr. Albert F. Zahm, an outspoken Wright foe and a witness for Curtiss in the recent patent suit, was certainly not an example of scientific impartiality. And that the Smithsonian then stuck to its indefensible position for twenty-eight years was deplorable. In the tart judgment of aviation historian Charles Gibbs-Smith it was “an intrigue which Langley himself would have condemned unequivocally had he been alive.”