Glen Curtiss
Alexander Graham Bell
Fort Meyer Trials
Louis Blériot
Reims air race
the first U.S. airshows
Santos Dumont
squaring up for war
the first bomb run
the amazing Dreadnought 1

Glenn Curtiss — hot on their heels

Glenn Hammond Curtiss was born on May 21, 1878, in Hammondsport, New York, near Keuka Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. He received little formal education and his father died when Glenn was only five years old. The family made a meagre living from the vineyard they cultivated in their front yard. In 1900, he took over a bicycle repair shop (ironically, just the profession the Wrights had chosen), and he soon established a reputation as a speedster. Speed, in fact, was to become an obsession for Curtiss all his life.

He was a champion cyclist in 1900, and in 1901 he added a motor to the bicycle and became a champion motorcyclist. By 1902, he was being asked to design motorcycles and engines for other racers, and in 1903 he opened a factory in Hammondsport, producing motorcycles and engines  acknowledged to be the best—meaning, with the highest power-to-weight ratio. In 1904, Curtiss raced one of his machines at Ormond Beach, Florida, and established a land speed record of sixty-seven miles per hour over a ten-mile course, a record that stood for seven years. (In 1907, he set an unofficial world speed record on a motorcycle —136 miles per hour, a speed then unimaginable to most people.) Initially, Curtiss had little interest in aviation.

His first foray into the field was as the provider of engines for dirigibles built by Thomas Scott Baldwin. In 1904, a Baldwin dirigible, the California Arrow, became the first American dirigible to complete a circular course, and by 1906 Curtiss-powered Baldwin dirigibles were in demand across the country. Dirigibles were too slow to interest Curtiss, but he developed a lifelong friendship with Baldwin and had his first taste of flight piloting a Baldwin balloon. In August of 1906, a fateful meeting took place between Curtiss and the Wrights. Curtiss had accompanied Baldwin to the Dayton Fair to help him demonstrate his dirigibles; the Wrights also attended (and on one occasion even helped retrieve a dirigible that went astray).

Baldwin and Curtiss visited the Wright bicycle repair shop. By this time, the Wrights had become secretive as they awaited the protection of a patent. They would not show, their visitors their airplane, but, regarding the pair as mere balloonists with no interest in airplanes, they were very forthcoming with information about their work and discussed aeronautics at length with the visitors. What the Wrights did not realize at the time was that Curtiss had already delivered an engine to Alexander Graham Bell, the famous inventor of the telephone, and that plans were afoot to marry Curtiss’ engine-building abilities with the others’ aeronautic talents to create airplanes.

In the legal wrangling that subsequently arose between the Wrights and Curtiss, these August 1906 conversations were pointed to as the source of Curtiss’ work in aviation and formed the basis of the Wrights’ suit for patent infringement. (Interestingly, an almost identical set of circumstances lay at the heart of the patent suit over electronic computers brought by John Atanasoff against John Mauchly and J. Presper Ecker, and won by Atanasoff for the same reasons in 1973.) Curtiss was a complex individual, and it is difficult to determine his attitude completely.

Sometimes he seemed to be trying to avoid confrontation with the Wrights or provoking them; at other times he seemed bent on keeping them busy with litigation while he moved on to other areas of aviation. Curtiss’ failed 1914 attempt to prove that Langley’s Aerodrome was really the first machine capable of flight probably precluded any possibility of reconciliation. In 1915, Orville sold his share of the Wright company, and though the new owners continued the litigation, in 1917, after the United States entered World War I, the government created a patent pool for all aircraft devices created to that time, making the entire question an academic one.

Glenn Curtiss at the controls of an experimental aircraft. His experience racing motorcycles helped him improve on the efficiency of aircraft design and propulsion systems.