Glenn Hammond Curtiss was born May 21, 1878 in Hammondsport, New York.
Although Curtuss left school after the 8th grade, his early interest in mechanics became evident at his first job with the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company (later Eastman Kodak Company) in Rochester, New York.
He invented a stencil machine adopted at the plant and later built a rudimentary camera to study photography.
Curtiss married in 1898 and by 1901 had developed an interest in motorcycles after internal combustion engines became more available.
In 1902, he began manufacturing motorcycles with his own single-cylinder engines.
His first motorcycle’s carburetor was adapted from a tomato soup can containing a gauze screen to pull the gasoline up via capillary action.
Then in 1903, “Hell Rider” Curtiss set a motorcycle land speed record at 64 miles per hour for one mile.
When E.H. Corson of the Hendee Mfg Co (manufacturers of Indian motorcycles) visited Hammondsport in July 1904, he was amazed that the entire Curtiss motorcycle enterprise was located in the back room of a modest “shop”.
Corson’s motorcycles had just been trounced the week before by Curtiss in an endurance race from New York to Cambridge, Maryland.
In 1904, Curtiss became a supplier of engines for the California “aeronaut” Tom Baldwin. In that same year, Baldwin’s California Arrow, powered by a Curtiss 9 HP V-twin motorcycle engine, became the first successful dirigible in America.
Then in 1907, Alexander Graham Bell invited Curtiss to develop a suitable engine for heavier-than-air flight experimentation. Bell regarded Curtiss as “the greatest motor expert in the country” and invited Curtiss to join his Aerial Experiment Association (AEA).
Also in 1907, Curtiss set an unofficial world land record of 136.36 miles per hour, on a 40 horsepower 269 cu in V8-powered motorcycle of his own design and construction.
His air-cooled F-head engine was intended for use in aircraft. Curtiss would remain “the fastest man in the world,” to use the title the newspapers gave him, until 1911, and his motorcycle record was not broken until 1930.
This motorcycle is now in the Smithsonian Institution.
Curtiss’s success at racing strengthened his reputation as a leading maker of high-performance motorcycles and engines.
AEA aircraft experiments
Between 1908 – 1910, Alexander Graham Bell’s AEA produced four aircraft, each one an improvement over the last. Curtiss primarily designed the AEA’s third aircraft, Aerodrome #3, the famous June Bug, and became its test pilot, undertaking most of the proving flights.
On July 4, 1908, Curtiss flew 5,080 feet, to win the Scientific American Trophy and its $2,500 purse. This was considered to be the first pre-announced public flight of a heavier-than-air flying machine in America.
Curtiss received U.S. Pilot’s license #1 from the Aero Club of America (because the first batch of licenses were issued in alphabetical order; Orville Wright received license #5).
The flight of the June Bug propelled Glenn Curtiss and aviation firmly into public awareness.
At the culmination of the Aerial Experiment Association’s experiments, Curtiss offered to purchase the rights to Aerodrome #3, essentially using it as the basis of his “Curtiss No.1”, the first of his production series of pusher aircraft.
Between 1909-1910, Curtiss employed a number of demonstration pilots including Eugene Ely, Charles “C.K.” Hamilton and Hugh Robinson.
Aerial competitions and demonstration flights across North America helped to introduce aviation to a curious public; Curtiss took full advantage of these occasions to promote his products.
In August 1909, Curtiss competed in the world’s first air meet, the Grande Semaine d’Aviation flying contest at Rheims (now Reims), France, organized by the Aéro-Club de France.
The Wright Brothers, who were selling their machines to customers in Germany at the time, decided not to compete in person. There were two Wright aircraft (modified with a landing gear) at the meet but they did not win any events. Curtiss went on to win the overall speed event, the Gordon Bennett Cup, a 20 km course at 46.5 miles per hour (74.8 km/h) in just under 16 minutes, six seconds faster than runner-up Louis Blériot.
Then on May 29, 1910, Curtiss flew from Albany to New York City to make the first long-distance flight between two major cities in the U.S. For this 137-mile flight, he won a $10,000 prize offered by publisher Joseph Pulitzer and was awarded permanent possession of the Scientific American trophy.
In June 1910, Curtiss provided a simulated bombing demonstration to naval officers at Hammondsport. Two months later, Lt. Jacob E. Fickel demonstrated the feasibility of shooting at targets on the ground from an aircraft with Curtiss serving as pilot. One month later, in September, Curtiss trained Blanche Stuart Scott, who was possibly the first American woman pilot.
The fictional character Tom Swift, who first appeared in 1910 in Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle and Tom Swift and His Airship, has been said to have been based on Glenn Curtiss. The Tom Swift books are set in a small town on a lake in upstate New York.
On November 14, 1910, Curtiss demonstration pilot Eugene Ely took off from a temporary platform mounted on the forward deck of the cruiser USS Birmingham. Ely’s successful takeoff and ensuing flight to shore marked the beginning of a relationship between Curtiss and the Navy that remained significant for decades (see my article from January 18, 2013) .
At the end of 1910, Curtiss established a winter encampment at San Diego to teach flying to Army and Naval personnel. It was here that he trained Lt. Theodore Ellyson, who was to become U.S. Naval Aviator #1, and three Army officers, 1st Lt. Paul W. Beck, 2nd Lt. George E. M. Kelly, and 2nd Lt. John C. Walker, Jr., in the first military aviation school.
The original site of this winter encampment is now part of Naval Air Station North Island and is referred to by the Navy as “The Birthplace of Naval Aviation”.
Through the course of that winter, Curtiss was able to develop a float (pontoon) design that would enable him to take off and land on water.
On January 26, 1911, Curtiss flew the first seaplane from the water in the United States.
Curtiss then built custom floats and adapted them onto a Model D aircraft so it could take off and land on water to prove the concept.
On February 24, 1911, Curtiss made his first amphibian demonstration at North Island by taking off and alighting on both land and water.
Back in Hammondsport, six months later in July 1911, Curtiss sold the U.S. Navy their first aircraft, the A-1 Triad.
The A-1, which was primarily a seaplane, was equipped with retractable wheels, also making it the first amphibian. Curtiss trained the Navy’s first pilots and built their first aircraft.
For this, Curtiss is considered to be “The Father of Naval Aviation”.
His A-1 was immediately recognized as so obviously useful, it was purchased by the U.S. Navy, Russia, Japan, Germany and Britain.
Curtiss then was awarded the Collier Trophy for designing this aircraft.
Around this time, Curtiss met the retired English naval officer John Cyril Porte who was looking for a partner to produce an aircraft with him in order to win the Daily Mail prize for the first transatlantic crossing.
In 1912, Curtiss produced the two-seat “Flying Fish”, a larger craft that became classified as a flying boat because the hull sat in the water; it featured an innovative notch (known as a “step”) in the hull that Porte had recommended for breaking clear of the water at takeoff.
Curtiss correctly surmised that this configuration was more suited to building a larger long-distance craft that could operate from water, and was also more stable when operating from a choppy surface.
In collaboration with Porte, Curtiss designed the “America” in 1914, a larger flying boat with two engines, for the transatlantic crossing.
World War I
With the start of World War I, Porte returned to service in the Royal Navy’s Seaplane Experimental Station, which subsequently purchased several models of the America, now called the H-4, from Curtiss. Porte licensed and further developed the designs, constructing a range of Felixstowe long-range patrol aircraft, and from his experience passed back improvements to the hull to Curtiss.
The later British designs were sold to the U.S. forces, or built by Curtiss as the F5L. The Curtiss factory also built a total of 68 “Large Americas” which evolved into the H-12, the only American designed and American built aircraft that saw combat in World War I.
As 1916 approached, it was feared that the United States would be drawn into the conflict. The Army’s Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps ordered the development of a simple, easy-to-fly and -maintain two-seat trainer. Curtiss created the JN-4 “Jenny” for the Army, and the N-9 seaplane version for the Navy.
It became one of the most famous products of the Curtiss company, and thousands were sold to the militaries of the United States, Canada and Britain.
Soon, civilian and military aircraft demand boomed, and the Curtiss company grew to employ 18,000 workers in Buffalo and 3,000 workers in Hammondsport.
Then in 1917 the U.S. Navy commissioned Curtiss to design a long-range, four-engined flying boat large enough to hold a crew of five, which became known as the NC-4.
Post-World War I
Peace brought cancellation of wartime contracts. In September 1920, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company underwent a financial reorganization. Glenn Curtiss cashed out his stock in the company for $32 million and retired to Florida.
He continued as a director of the company, but served only as an adviser on design.
In Florida, Curtiss went on to found 18 corporations, served on civic commissions, and donated extensive land and water rights.
He co-developed the city of Hialeah with James Bright and developed the cities of Opa-locka and Miami Springs, where he built a family home, known as the Glenn Curtiss House.
The Glenn Curtiss House, after years of disrepair and frequent vandalism, is being refurbished to serve as a museum in his honour.
Curtiss’s frequent hunting trips into the Florida Everglades led to a final invention, the Adams Motor “Bungalo”, a forerunner of the modern recreational vehicle trailer (named after his business partner and half-brother, G. Carl Adams).
Lastly, he designed a tailless aircraft with a V-shape wing and tricycle landing gear that he hoped could be sold in the price range of a family car.
Then while traveling to Rochester, New York to contest a law suit brought by former business partner, August Herring, Curtiss suffered an attack of appendicitis in court.
He died July 23, 1930 in Buffalo, New York, of complications from an appendectomy.
His funeral service was held at St. James Episcopal Church in his home town, Hammondsport, New York, with interment in the family plot at Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Hammondsport.
Glenn Curtiss was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1964, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1990, the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003.
The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has a collection of Curtiss’s original documents as well as a collection of airplanes, motorcycles and motors.
The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York is dedicated to Curtiss’s life and work.
Now WE know em