- Historic Sites
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
The episode completed Orville Wright’s embitterment. When the Smithsonian refused to retract its claims for the Aerodrome, he sent the historic Kitty Hawk plane, a national treasure, to the Science Museum in London. Not until 1942 did a new Smithsonian secretary, Dr. Charles G. Abbot, set the record straight by publishing a repudiation of the Hammondsport Hoax. In 1948, the year of Orville Wright’s death, the Kitty Hawk machine took its rightful place in the Smithsonian as the undisputed pioneer airplane.
As for Curtiss, any blot on his reputation faded in the rush of events. As his lawyer continued sidestepping the infringement judgment plane orders poured in from Europe’s warring powers. In 1917, after America’s entry into the war, a patent cross-licensing agreement was forced on the aviation industry by Washington. Patents were pooled, and a nominal royalty imposed on each aircraft built was divided among the various patent holders. The Wright legal monopoly was ended. In fact the Curtiss patents put into the pool were judged equal in value to the Wright patents, and each company was awarded two million dollars as an advance against royalties.
World War I swept Glenn Curtiss pell-mell into big business. As his biographer, C. R. Roseberry, observes, “he chanced to be operating the only manufactory on the American continent which was geared to produce airplanes on a quantity basis at short notice.” In the first years of the war the British placed over twenty million dollars in orders for flying boats, trainers, and engines. Engine production was centered in Hammondsport, airframe assembly in Buffalo. Production skyrocketed; in 1918 United States government orders alone totalled some $150 million.
The most famous Curtiss product of this era was the model JN -the celebrated “Jenny.” Thousands of student pilots won their wings in this rugged, forgiving trainer, and war-surplus Jennys became the backbone of the Twenties’ barnstorming craze. Another wartime development was the huge four-engine NC flying boat, conceived as a long-range hunter of German u-boats. Although none of the NC ’S saw action before the armistice, in 1919 one of them, the NC -4, made the first transatlantic crossing. [See “First to Fly the Atlantic,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , June, 1969.]
Curtiss was no administrator and played little part in the management of the enormous complex his company had become. Most of his time was spent at its engineering center on Long Island, helping develop engines and propellers and prototypes for a long line of graceful racers and Curtiss Hawk fighters. Being a millionaire changed him very little; he customarily rode to the “shop” on a bicycle. But aircraft design was becoming an increasingly sophisticated slide-rule operation. “Aviation has just passed me by,” he admitted to friends. “It’s now big business … for engineers, financiers, and the like.” In 1921 he stepped out of the industry he had done so much to start a little more than a decade before.
In the perspective of history his decision symbolized a changing of the guard. The era of aviation’s handy tinkerers, of trial and error, was passing. A whole range of new technologies—in metallurgy, in airframe design, in engines, in instrumentation—was replacing wood and piano wire and fabric. A new generation of pioneers of the stripe of William Boeing and Donald Douglas—and a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh—was about to come on stage.
Only in his early forties, Curtiss was not yet ready to slow down. He added to his already substantial fortune by investing in Florida real estate and was a developer of three Miami-area resort communities: Hialeah, Miami Springs, and Opa-locka. Nor did he stop tinkering, developing among other things a streamlined auto trailer and an “air-boat”—driven by an air propeller—for navigating shallow waterways. And he was very much an elder statesman of the aviation community. There were celebrations commemorating the twentieth anniversaries of his June Bug and Hudson River flights, and the press regularly sought his views on new aeronautical developments. The 1929 merger of the Wright and Curtiss companies into the giant Curtiss-Wright Corporation appeared to signal the end of the old feud, but in fact it was only irony raised to a high power. Neither Curtiss nor Orville Wright played any role in the merger, and there was no reconciliation between the two pioneers.
And there never would be. OnJuIy 23, i93o, following surgery for acute appendicitis, Glenn Curtiss died of a pulmonary embolism. He was fifty-two. During the burial services in Hammondsport ten aircraft circled overhead, releasing hundreds of flowers to drift down over the grave of the man who had awakened America to the air age.