- 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
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.
(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.
The craft was christened Red Wing . On March 12, 1908, with Casey Baldwin at the controls, the engine was fired up, and Red Wing bounded across frozen Keuka Lake and into the air. Its flight was erratic, ending with a sideways lurch into the ice. Baldwin crawled out unhurt to the cheers of townspeople lining the shore. The flight measured 319 feet. Repairs were made and Baldwin essayed a second flight a few days later. This time the wind was gusty and the lack of any real control system quickly reduced Red Wing to a heap of spars and torn silk. It is claimed that Red Wing made the first announced public flight in America, which is true enough but of no real consequence. It was an uncontrollable aircraft, as the AEA members were quick to appreciate, and its real significance was that it got them into the air and invigorated their hopes.
The second AEA plane, White Wing , so named for its white muslin wing fabric, had the same six-day lifespan as Red Wing , but it was a major step forward because it was controllable. One of the Wrights’ strokes of genius, and the heart of their patent, was their control system: the combination of horizontal elevators for up-and-down control and wing warping and rudders for lateral control and turning. Simply stated, wing warping changed the angle or pitch of the wings by means of a system of cables. If a gust of wind tipped the plane over to the right, for example, lateral stability was restored by moving the warping-control lever to the left. This flexed the trailing edges of the left wings upward (causing the airflow over them to exert a downward force) and flexed the trailing edges of the right wings downward (causing the airflow to lift them). Carrying this an important step further, the Wrights coordinated the warping and rudder controls to make smooth banked turns.
All this was in their patent, and Bell in particular, having endured endless litigation to protect his telephone patents from infringement, had no desire to repeat the experience, on either side of the question. In addition the AEA members felt that making the wings flexible for warping purposes weakened them structurally. It was Bell who suggested a solution to the dilemma. He proposed achieving lateral stability by mounting hinged, controllable panels at the wing tips of White Wing —in other words, ailerons.
On May 18, 1908, at Hammondsport’s trotting track, Baldwin made a short hop, and the next day Selfridge flew for the first time. Both flights were brief because of minor mishaps, but on May 21, his thirtieth birthday, Curtiss made his piloting debut and demonstrated that in White Wing the AEA had a real airplane. His maiden effort covered 1,017 feet and included a gentle s-turn to test the controls. White Wing ’s career ended abruptly two days later when McCurdy overcontrolled on his initial flight but walked away from the wreck.
The third aerodrome was Curtiss’, and when he set to work, he had a goal—the trophy offered by Scientific American for the hrst officially sanctioned flight of one kilometer (3,281 feet) in the United States. The craft was a considerably improved version of White Wing . When Bell watched its first flight, he christened it June Bug for the flying beetles buzzing about at that time of the year. In further lest flights Curtiss tuned his machine and sharpened his flying skills—and whetted public interest; unlike the Wrights, he was revealing an awareness of the power of publicity. It was announced that on July 4, 1908, in Hammondsport, before officials of the Aero Club of America, Glenn Curtiss would go after the Scientific American Trophy.
On the appointed day nearly everyone from Hammondsport and the surrounding countryside turned up with picnic lunches and high hopes of seeing the local boy make good. Not even a brisk wind and thundershowers dampened their enthusiasm. The Pleasant Valley Wine Company added to the festivities with samples of its product. The wind died down by evening, and June Bug was rolled out of its tent. The first flight was aborted because of a misaligned tail assembly, but that was soon set right and Curtiss took off again. This time everything worked perfectly. On and on June Bug soared, over the yelling spectators, over vineyards and fences, over the red flag marking the end of the measured course and well beyond before finally landing. Daisy Bell Fairchild, the inventor’s daughter, recalled how “we all lost our heads and David [her husband] shouted, and I cried, and everyone cheered and clapped, and engines tooted.” Her husband added, “What a moment for the vivid imagination. The thing is done. Man flies!”
That was exactly the reaction of many Americans when they opened their newspapers and read of the Independence Day doings in Hammondsport. Most had never heard of the Wright brothers and assumed that Glenn Curtiss was the first American to fly an airplane. The more knowledgeable hoped that now the Wrights would come forward to prove their claims.
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.”
The Rheims meeting in August, 1909, was the first air spectacular. Over the course of a week some five hundred thousand people, including royalty of various stripes, watched in astonishment as airplanes flew faster, higher, and farther than ever before. All the leading aviators were there except the Wrights, and they were represented by five Flyers built under license in France. Louis Blériot, fresh from his celebrated flight across the English Channel, was a heavy favorite for the speed events. Lacking even a spare engine, Curtiss husbanded his resources. Except for two shorter races, which he split with Blériot, he pointed for the main event—the twenty-kilometer speed trial for the Gordon Bennett Trophy donated by newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr.
Race day, August 28, dawned clear and windless, and Curtiss decided to make his trial while conditions held. He took off, climbed to five hundred feet, and dove hard for the first pylon. At full throttle he ranged twice around the ten-kilometer course, shaving the pylons so closely that he left the spectators gasping. His time was announced as 15 minutes, 50 seconds, or 46.5 miles an hour. While the other contestants took turns at the mark Blériot tuned and retuned his monoplane’s big engine.
Curtiss was still in first place when the Frenchman made his bid in late afternoon. It was a fast flight all the way, and although some noted how he slipped into a wide turn on lap two, Curtiss thought he was beaten. But suddenly the Stars and Stripes was fluttering from the flagstaff and the band was playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the crowd was in an uproar. Blériot had fallen short by six seconds. The New York Herald was quick to point out that Glenn Curtiss was now “the fastest man of the earth and skies.”
His quiet elation was tempered by stunning news recently arrived from the United States. In a New York federal court the Wright brothers had filed suit against the Herring-Curtiss Company and Curtiss personally, seeking an injunction to bar all sales and exhibitions on the grounds of patent infringement.
The Wright-Curtiss patent fight, a convoluted affair of charges and countercharges, injunctions and appeals, would drag on for eight years, with profound effects on the participants themselves and on aviation in general. The crux of the issue was the Wrights’ control system. The Curtiss ailerons were clearly different from the Wrights’ wing warping, and far more practical. Yet having filed suit, the Wrights stuck to warping long after progress passed them by. Moreover, the basic principle of changing the angle of wing surfaces relative to the airflow to maintain lateral stability could be considered the same. And principle was very much involved; the Wrights contended that as sole inventors of the airplane they deserved the broadest possible interpretation for their “pioneer patent.” In January, 1910, a federal judge granted them a temporary injunction. Six months later Curtiss won a stay on appeal, and the whole case began another long, slow progress through the courts.
Attempts made to settle the expensive legal war out of court got nowhere. Wilbur and Orville Wright were prideful men, stiff-backed in their rectitude. They could claim one of the great inventions of all time, yet their reward had been public scorn and, they said, surreptitious efforts by “the Curtiss crowd” to “pick their brains.” They were ironbound in their determination for recognition and financial benefit. Glenn Curtiss gave nothing away when it came to prideful stubbornness. He was sure his aileron control was both different and superior; but even more important, he was fighting for his business life. The Wrights demanded a license fee of a thousand dollars a machine, and with Curtiss planes of the period carrying a five-thousanddollar price tag, that came to a ruinous 20 per cent royalty. The gulf between the contestants would widen after 1912, when Wilbur Wright died. Orville was convinced that the strains of the court battle had weakened his brother’s health, leaving him prey to the typhoid fever that killed him.
Another issue strongly coloring the Wright-Curtiss feud was the matter of monopoly. This was an era when the words monopoly and trust rang sinister to many ears. The oil trust, the steel trust, the sugar trust, the money trust were only the best known; many others flourished beyond the light of publicity. Late in 1909, three months after filing suit, the Wrights formed a million-dollar corporation backed by Wall Street titans, and fears of monopoly were suddenly very real. A Chicago paper raised the specter of an air trust “which will practically control the aviation of the world.” The Wrights’ actions, remarks Marvin McFarland, the editor of their papers, “turned the hand of almost every man in aviation against them.”
While stubbornness and personal pride prevented the issues from being settled out of court, the root of the problem was the administration of the patent laws of the day. The Wrights unquestionably deserved financial reward for their lonely and dedicated pioneering, but monopoly was something else. Aviation progress stagnated, particularly in the United States, birthplace of the airplane. Bonds had to be posted before exhibitions or air shows could take place. The threat of further suits and of monopoly frightened off prospective purchasers and dried up investment capital, squelching the competition that stimulates technological advances. Even the principals in the suit were affected. Wright aircraft, hampered by the stubborn adherence to wing warping, reflected few real advances in these years. Curtiss remained innovative, but mostly in the area of broadening the airplane’s usefulness; the standard Curtiss craft of 1913 or 1914 was simply a refinement of 1909 models.
But all this was in the future when Curtiss returned from Europe with his Rheims laurels in September, 1909. Fully expecting the Wright suit to be thrown out of court, he set about turning his new fame into more substantial rewards.
Herring-Curtiss was awash in requests for exhibition flights and air-meet appearances and purchase orders. While the plant labored to fill the orders Curtiss began training pilots to help him with exhibition dates. He performed well in these events, and by all odds it should have been an invigorating, profitable time. Instead it was a period of pure frustration. In part this was due to the Wright suit’s threat to profits from sales and exhibitions, but the more immediate problem was Augustus Herring.
Herring had revealed his true colors, and they were not pretty. While single-mindedly trying to cash in on his partner’s fame he evaded every demand to produce the sheaf of patents that comprised his share of the partnership. Finally it became clear that the patents simply did not exist and that Curtiss had been hoodwinked. The antagonism degenerated into a battle for corporate control, and in the spring of 1910 the Herring-Curtiss Company was declared bankrupt. Eventually Herring was forced out and Curtiss was able to organize a new company, but it was a painful disillusionment.
His solace from business and financial troubles was tinkering, and this time he produced a plane destined to carry him on his most spectacular flight. The craft was named the Hudson Flyer and his goal was the longest and most dangerous cross-country flight yet attempted in the United States.
Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World had put up a tenthousand-dollar prize for the first aviator to follow the course of the Hudson River between New York and Albany —152 miles—“in a mechanically propelled airship either lighter or heavier than air.” The flight was to be completed within twenty-four hours, and two refuelling stops were permitted. This was intended as the capstone to the Hudson-Fulton Celebration commemorating (by stretching dates a bit) Henry Hudson’s discovery of the river three hundred years before and Robert Fulton’s famous voyage upriver in the steamboat Clermont in 1807.
As Curtiss discovered when he surveyed the route, the risk factor was high indeed. Strong winds and violent turbulence were common in the air space over the river, and the rugged terrain along the banks offered few places for an emergency landing. He decided to start at Albany to take advantage of the prevailing winds. His first refuelling stop, he calculated, should be near Poughkeepsie. The grounds of a state mental hospital looked promising, and the superintendent was glad to oblige. “Why, certainly, Mr. Curtiss, come right in here,” he exclaimed. “Here’s where all the flying machine inventors land.” Curtiss chose a spot on the other side of town.
The Hudson Flyer was equipped with a pair of airtight metal canisters under the wings and several air bags on a plank rigged to the landing gear; if forced down on the river it might float—and it might not. Curtiss prudently donned a pair of fisherman’s waders and a cork lifepreserver and early on the morning of May 29, 1910, took off on the great adventure.
Early in the flight the air was blessedly calm. “I felt an immense sense of relief,” he said later. “The motor sounded like music.” Keeping pace was a special train chartered by the New York Times , the passengers (including Mrs. Curtiss) waving handkerchiefs and craning out the windows for a glimpse at what reporters described as the “intrepid birdman.” A hitch developed at the Poughkeepsie fuelling stop when the promised gasoline was not there, but two passing motorists obligingly filled the plane’s tank from their spare fuel cans, and Curtiss was off again within an hour.
Now the turbulence hit him, and Curtiss had to call on all his flying skills. The Flyer kicked and bucked in wind currents he compared to a mountain stream plunging through a gorge. At Storm King Mountain he was caught in a sudden downdraft and nearly fell out of the plane before he could regain control. But that was the worst. Soon New York’s skyscrapers were in sight. After a quick landing in upper Manhattan to top off his fuel and oil, he headed on downstream for Governors Island in the harbor. Throngs on roofs and balconies cheered and waved as he buzzed past the city, and ships tooted their whistles. After circling the Statue of Liberty he glided in for a landing on Governors Island. His flying time from Albany was under three hours, an average speed of fifty-two miles an hour.
The flight was front-page news across the nation. “It was a splendid feat, with wonderful courage and skill,” said the Times , “and it seems to make human flying more of a reality than hitherto it has been.” Some papers were carried away, comparing it to Cook’s and Peary’s recent Arctic achievements and predicting that transatlantic flight was just around the corner. Besides pocketing the World ’s ten-thousand-dollar check, Curtiss was awarded the Scientific American Trophy for the third year in a row.
In the afterglow of this latest triumph he organized the Curtiss Exhibition Company, and when in self-defense the Wrights set up a rival company, aerial barnstorming was born. Flying from cow pastures and county fairgrounds and ball diamonds across the nation, a colorful gallery of aviators—and a few “aviatrixes”—put their frail craft through maneuvers billed with perfect accuracy as “deathdefying.” Uncounted Americans got their first glimpse of a flying machine, and uncounted small boys got a new species of hero. But the mortality rate in barnstorming proved terribly high, and at his wife’s urging Curtiss gave up such appearances. In any case he had a new preoccupation—the seaplane.
The idea of a “hydroaeroplane” had been in the back of his mind since the AEA days, when he experimented briefly with turning June Bug into a “water bug.” Now, in the autumn of 1910, his interest coincided with the United States Navy’s first look at aviation. In charge of the looking was Captain Washington Irving Chambers, an innovative, forward-thinking officer. Chambers sought to impress the navy brass by staging the takeoff of an airplane from a warship. Wilbur Wright turned down the idea as too risky, but Curtiss pilot Eugene Ely was willing. On November 14, in Hampton Roads off the Virginia coast, he cranked up the Hudson Flyer and sped down a wooden platform built over the forecastle of the cruiser Birmingham . The Flyer lurched over the bow, clipped the wave tops, and struggled into the air. The date is celebrated as the birth of naval aviation.
Curtiss notified the Secretary of the Navy that he was setting up a “winter experimental station” in California and that to investigate the “adaptability of the aeroplane to Military purposes” he would give free pilot training to any officer the Navy cared to assign. In January of 1911 Lieutenant Theodore Ellyson, late of the submarine service, reported to Curtiss on the West Coast “for instruction in the art of aviation.”
As the experimental station they chose San Diego’s North Island, flat, uninhabited, and accessible only by boat. In this pleasant seclusion Curtiss set about looking into the seaplane question. First, however, he and Chambers and Ely combined for another navy spectacular. A platform was hammered together over the quarterdeck of the cruiser Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Harbor, an arrester gear of cables and sandbags was assembled, and on January 18 Ely made history’s first carrier landing. After lunching with the ship’s officers he took off without mishap.
Ely’s flights began a highly productive partnership between Curtiss and the Navy. Chambers extolled Curtiss for achieving “more for the development of naval aviation than any other man in the world … always ready to make experiments and as progressive as the Wrights were conservative.” The seaplane was a prime example. Less than a year before, Frenchman Henri Fahre had managed to get an ungainly float plane airborne, but nothing more came of that. A practical seaplane remained to be invented, and Curtiss proceeded to do it in less than two weeks.
It was tinkering of a high order. There was no scientific study of hydrodynamics, no carefully shaped models towed in testing tanks. Old-fashioned trial and error was the Curtiss way. Lieutenant Ellyson reported that some fifty pontoon designs and modifications were tried before, on January 26, 1911, Curtiss taxied away from the beach, applied full throttle, and soared off the water. As he circled North Island his flight crew ran up and down the beach, throwing their hats into the air. That was only the beginning. Fitting a retractable landing gear resulted in the first amphibian; since it was operable on land, sea, and in the air, Curtiss christened it Triad . The following year, applying what he had learned to hull design, he invented the first flying boat.
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.”
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.