Born at Hammondsport NY, May 21, 1878. Died 1930.
The love of high speeds and mechanical devices led the
gifted Glenn H. Curtiss of Hammondsport, New York, to become
the first U.S. competitor in international air meets and a
pioneer in the development of aircraft in the early 1900s.
Curtiss began his high-speed career by racing and building
bicycles. His next step was to buy and improve one-cylinder
bicycle engines. Then, as motorcycles started being
developed, he began building and racing them. By 1902,
Curtiss was manufacturing customized motorcycles under the
trade name Hercules.
his first motorcycle race in 1902 and although he did not
win, his mechanical talents were recognized, and many
motorcycle enthusiasts ordered his rugged, well performing
machine. In 1903, Curtiss entered two races in two different
cities on Memorial Day and won both. The two-cylinder engine
that he used to power his cycles soon began to draw
attention from motorcyclists and from early aircraft
builders as well.
continued improving his engines and competing in races. In
1907 at Ormond Beach, Florida, he reached the record speed
of 136 miles per hour (219 kilometres per hour) on his
motorcycle powered by a 40-horsepower (30-kilowatt), V-8
engine. He began to be called "the fastest man alive."
a balloonist, saw Curtiss race and recognized how good his
engine was. He realized that the engine could work on an
aircraft as well as on a motorcycle. He ordered one for his
balloon from Curtiss, who delivered a modified motorcycle
engine. In 1908, Curtiss made his first flight piloting the
new airship, the California Arrow, powered by a Curtiss
engine. He was hooked on flying.
reputation for mechanical skill, developing superior
aircraft engines, and his love of high speeds attracted Dr.
Alexander Graham Bell, the wealthy inventor of the
telephone. Bell had caught the aviation bug and had specific
ideas for improving aircraft flight performance. He had
heard about Curtiss' talents and was hoping that Curtiss
could help him test and improve a variety of theories and
aircraft. When the two met, they realized they had a lot in
common--both their technical aspirations and their interest
in helping their deaf relatives communicate better. It was
the beginning of a close relationship.
established the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) in
October 1907 to bring bright young engineers together in a
creative environment. The AEA, composed of Bell as mentor,
Douglas McCurdy, Frederick Baldwin, Lt. Thomas Selfridge,
and Glenn Curtiss, went on to build aircraft as a team and
test and perfect each other's theories and methods for
improving flight performance. One member led the design team
for a specific plane, and each one, except Bell, who was too
old, piloted at least one plane.
Experiment Association (AEA) Aerodrome No. 3, the June Bug,
in flight with Glenn Curtiss at the controls, summer 1908.
Bell designed the first AEA craft--a 42-foot (13-meter)
tetrahedral kite named Cygnet. Selfridge led the second
aircraft design team and Baldwin the third. Both were
biplanes powered with Curtiss 40-horsepower (30-kilowatt)
V-8 engines. The first biplane was named the Red Wing
because of the red silk covering its wings. The second was
called White Wing because of its white muslin covering.
Curtiss made his first airplane flight in the White Wing on
May 21, 1908--his 30th birthday. The plane was the first to
be controlled by ailerons instead of the wing warping used
by the Wright brothers and the first plane with wheeled
landing gear in America.
Curtiss led the
design and build team for the fourth AEA aircraft. He
selected a biplane and used the same 40-horsepower
(30-kilowatt) engine as the earlier biplanes. The
yellow-winged craft was called the June Bug. After four days
of test flights in June 1908, Curtiss had made record
flights of more than 3,000 feet (914 meters). The AEA
decided that the June Bug, with Curtiss as pilot, was ready
to compete and notified the Aero Club of America that it
would go after the first Scientific American trophy and its
$2,500 purse. Its primary requirements: a take-off by wheels
from the ground and a minimum one-kilometer (0.6-mile)
flight. On July 4, 1908, in Hammondsport, New York, Curtiss
took off but failed on his first try. But just minutes
later, after making some adjustments, he took off again. The
June Bug flew for two kilometres (1.25 miles)--twice the
required distance. The result: Curtiss won the first U.S.
aviation cash prize and the large Scientific American trophy
to keep for a year. The flight was photographed, and Curtiss
and the AEA received valuable national and world publicity.
In late 1908,
Dr. Bell announced that the AEA had achieved its goals in
heavier-than-air aircraft research and would disband at the
end of March 1909. Curtiss promptly formed a company with
Augustus Herring (the former partner of Octave Chanute) and
built a new biplane for the Aeronautic Society of New York,
the Golden Flier (or Gold Bug). It had a 28.75-foot
(8.8-meter) wingspan, was 33.5 feet (10.2 meters) long,
weighed 550 pounds (250 kilograms), and used a 25-horsepower
(19-kilowatt) inline 4-cylinder Curtiss engine. In July
1909, Curtiss piloted this plane to win the Scientific
American trophy again with its cash prize of $10,000.
With its top
speed of about 45 miles per hour (72 kilometres per hour),
Curtiss was encouraged to enter the Golden Flier in the
first international air show to be held that August at Reims,
France. With support from the Aeronautic Society, Curtiss
entered the competition for its four major prizes. But about
a month before the competition, the Golden Flier crashed and
was heavily damaged. Instead of repairing it, Curtiss and
his team assembled a new craft, eventually called the Reims
Racer. Its design was similar to the Golden Flier, but it
had a more powerful 51-horsepower (38-kilowatt) Curtiss V-8
engine, a wingspan that was 2.5 feet (0.8 meter) shorter,
and it weighed about 150 pounds (68 kilograms) more because
of its larger engine.
Crowds came to
see him fly--almost 200,000 paying customers and another
100,000 perched on a nearby hillside. And they weren't
disappointed. Curtiss won two races at the air show with his
Reims Racer. The first was the Gordon Bennett Cup Race on
August 28, 1909, with its purse of $5,000 and trophy, which
he won with a top speed of 46.5 miles per hour (75
kilometers per hour). The next day, he took the "Prix de la
Vitesse" for winning a 30-kilometer. (18.6-mile) race.
Curtiss received worldwide press acclaim for his victories.
He went on to win three more prizes that summer in Brescia,
Italy, including a purse of $7,600.
When the next
flying season began in 1910, Curtiss was looking forward to
racing again. He and his team built a new aircraft, the
Hudson Flier, with a larger airframe and wingspan than the
Reims Racer. It housed a 50-horsepower (37-kilowatt) engine
and had flotation gear so the craft could land safely on
water. He planned to compete for the $10,000 prize that the
New York World was offering for flying 152 miles (245
kilometres) along the Hudson River from Albany, New York, to
Governors Island in New York City within a 24-hour period.
Two landings would be allowed along the way. The flight had
to take place by October 1910.
On May 29, a
bright Sunday morning, Curtiss took off from Albany. He made
one planned landing in Poughkeepsie, New York, and an
unplanned one on a large lawn in Manhattan, where he
received gas and oil. Three hours later, he circled the
Statue of Liberty and landed on Governors Island. He carried
the first piece of U.S. airmail--a letter from the mayor of
Albany to the mayor of New York City. Curtiss received the
cash prize, wide public praise, the opportunity to speak at
a banquet at the Astor Hotel, and permanent possession of
the Scientific American trophy.
successes, Curtiss went on to develop aircraft for
transportation and military purposes in World War I,
specializing in training, observation and patrol, seaplanes,
and flying boats. The second company that Curtiss
established, the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, would become the
world's largest aircraft manufacturer during the war.