Curtis Arrives on the Scene

by Steven A. Ruffin

 

The Saturday morning of July 4, 1908, dawned breezy and cloudy in the sleepy town of Hammondsport, New York. The village of just over a thousand inhabitants, situated on the banks of Lake Keuka in the state’s Finger Lake region, was about to celebrate the most exciting Independence Day in memory.

The sky threatened rain but could not dampen the highly charged sense of excitement pulsating throughout the village—for on this day, history was about to be made by Hammondsport native son, Glenn Curtiss. The thirty-year-old motorcycle racer and manufacturer—recently turned aeronautical pioneer—had selected this auspicious day to capture the first prize ever offered for an airplane flight in the United States.

 

Charles A. Munn, publisher of the prestigious Scientific American magazine, had offered the prize—actually, the first of a three-part prize—for the first public flight of one kilometer made in the United States by a heavier-than-air machine. Officially, the competition was open to anyone, but Munn had really established the prize specifically for the Wright Brothers to win. It was to be a sort of peace offering to atone for the way the inventors of flight had been neglected by the press over the years since their historic first flight of December 17, 1903.

Munn was aware that the Wrights could easily do something as simple as fly in a straight line for a mere five-eighths of a mile. After all, in October 1905, more than two years previously, they had privately flown 40 times that distance—an astounding 24 miles—at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, Ohio.


So, the prize was there for the taking, but it just so happened that the Wrights felt no urgency to claim it. They were too busy with other matters to bother with the minor technicality of converting their flyer from skids to wheels for an unassisted takeoff, as stipulated by Munn’s rules. In any event, the prize was safe for the time being, since the brothers were certain no one else in the United States was even close to developing a machine that could fly as far as a kilometer.


Unknown to either Munn or the Wrights, however, a young upstart named Glenn Curtiss had his own ideas as to who should carry the magnificent $2,500 silver trophy home.

 

Thousands of excited spectators began to assemble before dawn just outside of Hammondsport at Stony Brook Farm racetrack. Virtually all the town’s inhabitants, and hundreds of others from throughout the countryside, were present in hopes of seeing Curtiss do the impossible in his little three-wheeled pusher biplane, June Bug. Also in attendance were reporters and photographers from all over the country, as well as representatives of the recently established Aero Club of America, who had traveled to Hammondsport to officially validate the flight. A motion picture camera crew even showed up to record the event—itself a milestone for 1908. But even history in the making would have to wait, as the rain began to fall.

 

None other than the brilliant Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, internationally recognized inventor of the telephone, had christened June Bug. This was only appropriate, since he—more than anyone else—was responsible for the spectacular event about to take place at Hammondsport on this rainy Fourth of July. He was, after all, the inspiration behind the small group of bright and ambitious young men who had designed and constructed June Bug.

Bell had always been fascinated—even obsessed—with the possibility of human flight. Since the early 1890s—a full decade before the historic first flight at Kittyhawk—he had collaborated extensively with other aeronautical pioneers of the time and had experimented with large box kites at his Baddeck, Nova Scotia summer home. When the Wright Brothers finally succeeded in achieving human powered flight in 1903, Bell became more determined to discover the closely guarded secret for himself.


Bell had earlier been joined, while experimenting with large tetrahedron kites, by two young University of Toronto students, Douglas McCurdy and Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin. Also working with Bell was an enthusiastic young U.S. Army artillery officer and West Point graduate, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge. Convinced of the potential military value of aviation, Selfridge had sought out Bell to advance his knowledge on the subject. The two quickly became friends, and at Bell’s personal request to the president of the United States, the army temporarily assigned Selfridge to study aeronautics with Bell.


The fifth, final—and certainly most unlikely—member of Bell’s scholarly scientific group was a 29-year-old eighth grade dropout from the vineyards of upstate New York. Glenn Hammond Curtiss, born in Hammondsport on May 21, 1878, had quickly risen from modest beginnings to make his mark in the world. In addition to being a famous racing daredevil, Curtiss had also established a reputation as a talented inventor, and successful manufacturer of high-quality motorcycles.


The “amazing Mr. Curtiss,” as newspapers referred to him, was possessed with a highly competitive spirit and obsession with speed that had driven him to become a champion motorcycle racer and record speedster. In 1904 he had set a world speed record for the ten-mile straightaway that stood for more than 7 years, and in 1907 he claimed the world land speed record by racing his motorcycle to the unbelievable speed of 136 mph. For this feat, Glenn Curtiss was nationally acclaimed as “the fastest man in the world.”


It was, however, the engines that Curtiss manufactured for his highly successful motorcycles that eventually got him involved in the embryonic science of aeronautics. Their high power-to-weight ratio suited them ideally for aeronautical use, so that when well-known showman and balloonist, Thomas Scott Baldwin, began installing Curtiss engines in his world-renowned dirigibles, other aeronauts followed suit.


The momentous first meeting between Curtiss and Bell occurred in New York City in 1906 at an Aero Club of America show, where Curtiss was exhibiting his engines. Bell had previously ordered a Curtiss engine for propeller experiments and considered Curtiss “the greatest motor expert in the country.” Realizing his fledgling aeronautical study group needed an engine specialist, Bell offered Curtiss $25/day plus expenses to travel to Nova Scotia and observe his kite experiments. Never one to turn down easy money, Curtiss agreed.


Curtiss soon met with the three other members of Bell’s scientific group and was immediately invited to join their newly formed organization, the “Aerial Experiment Association.” The AEA, established solely for the scientific study of winged flight, was chartered on October 1, 1907. Bell became the chairman of the association, with Selfridge as the secretary, McCurty as treasurer, and Baldwin as chief engineer. Curtiss was made “Director of Experiments” and given a generous salary of $5,000 to accompany the title. Because of his unique talents and background, Curtiss quickly became the driving force behind the organization, whose official aim was “…to get into the air….”


The charter allowed each of the five AEA members in turn to develop his own aircraft design. After Bell’s pet tetrahedral kite concept quickly proved unsuccessful, Selfridge headed up the design for the first true AEA aircraft—called Red Wing, for its scarlet silk-covered wings.



On March 12, 1908, Casey Baldwin managed a brief flight of just over 100 yards in Red Wing from frozen Lake Keuka, before crashing back onto the ice. Although not exactly an auspicious beginning, the AEA had nevertheless tasted success and achieved what was subsequently claimed to be “…the first public flight of a heavier-than-air machine in America.”


The Wright Brothers resented this somewhat absurd claim, as well as the lavish public attention given to the comparatively unspectacular AEA flight. After all, Orville and Wilbur had by this time already made hundreds of stunningly successful flights—albeit not advertised, but certainly viewed by many—and were effectively light years ahead of the AEA in terms of aeronautical advancement and aircraft performance. In particular, they had made progress in flight endurance, maneuverability and control, and had long since mastered the perplexing problem of controlled flight.


But, even almost five years after the Wrights’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, their flying activities were still shrouded in secrecy, and they jealously avoided public display or photographs of their machines for fear of their ideas being copied. Consequently, even as late as 1908, the American public knew very little of the Wright Brothers or their accomplishments. It is therefore understandable that the press, eager to capitalize on any tidbit of news relating to the exciting new field of aviation, seized upon Red Wing’s shaky little hop into the air.


The second aircraft designed by “Bell’s Boys”—this time with Casey Baldwin calling the shots—was covered with white muslin nainsook, and thus appropriately named White Wing. It had the distinction of being the first aircraft in America to use moveable wing tips—or ailerons—for lateral control, instead of the wing-warping mechanism the Wright Brothers used. It was also the first American flying machine equipped with wheels, complete with a steerable nose wheel.


It was in this machine that U.S. military aviation was born, when on May 19, 1908, Lt. Selfridge flew it from Stony Brook Farm racetrack. Two days later, Curtiss celebrated his 30th birthday by making his flying debut in White Wing. His flight of 339 yards was the longest yet made by an AEA machine.


Bell named the third—and ultimately most famous—AEA design June Bug, for the numerous insects buzzing around Hammondsport at the time. Curtiss, whose turn it was to be chief designer, had built this aircraft with the expressed intention of capturing the yet unclaimed Scientific American prize. June Bug sported numerous improvements over the previous AEA machine, including enlarged wing tip ailerons controlled by a shoulder yoke—a feature that became a hallmark of early Curtiss aircraft.

 

The day dragged on, as the rain delay continued. The masses of hopeful spectators huddled under umbrellas, trees and anything else they could crawl under to take refuge from the downpour. Still, as the hours passed, more spectators continued to congregate around the racetrack, in hopeful anticipation of witnessing the miracle of manned flight.


Finally, by late afternoon, the sky cleared, and the wind subsided. Curtiss rolled June Bug out of the abandoned circus tent that served as a hangar and eyed the red one-kilometer marker flag waving in the distance. Finally, at 7:00 p.m., the engine was started, and he climbed into the seat. On Curtiss’ signal, ground crew members released the aircraft, and it quickly began to gather speed down the racetrack, the engine belching a thick cloud of smoke. After 200 feet, it lifted gracefully into the air while the crowd of thousands cheered loudly. But well short of the desired mark, Curtiss sensed trouble. He abruptly cut the ignition and quickly returned to terra firma. Adjustments were made, and by 7:30, he was ready to try again.


Once more, Curtiss gunned the engine and lifted off smoothly, this time flying straight and level at an altitude of 20 feet. Traveling at 39 miles an hour, June Bug soon soared past the all-important kilometer mark, but Curtiss continued for another 2000 feet before making a smooth landing.

 

In less than two minutes, Curtiss had flown an airplane an entire mile for all the world to see, and he had snatched the coveted Scientific American trophy from under the noses of Orville and Wilbur. He had also gained immediate national acclaim and earned the honor of being granted pilot’s license #1 by the Aero Club of America.


But this defining moment in the history of aviation accomplished much more. Curtiss had also finally earned the begrudging public acceptance that human flight was indeed a reality, and he had officially served notice to the Wright Brothers that they now had a competitor to be reckoned with. Glenn Curtiss had indeed arrived on the aviation scene—and clearly, he was here to stay.


There was a price to pay for such success, however. Curtiss also garnered the jealous resentment of the Wright Brothers, along with a stern letter from them warning him against what they considered further infringement of their patent for their wing-warping control mechanism. As far as the Wrights were concerned, the use of virtually any type of control apparatus on a flying machine—including moveable ailerons—amounted to patent infringement. It was to be the beginning of a long, bitter feud and court battle that would impede aeronautical development in the United States for many years to come.


Although Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers shared strikingly similar backgrounds, interests and personal traits, the two parties were destined to remain bitter enemies for the remainder of their lives. It was, then, the ultimate irony when the names of the two hated archrivals became permanently linked in 1929, as their respective companies—neither still under the control of the founding pioneers—merged to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.


The AEA would disband in 1909, but the meteoric aviation career of Glenn Curtiss was only beginning. Before his untimely death in 1930 of complications from routine surgery, he would go on to future successes of nearly unbelievable proportions. Not only would Curtiss claim several prestigious national and international flying awards, patent numerous landmark inventions and earn the exalted title, “Father of Naval Aviation,” he would also build world-class aeronautical and real estate empires. Indeed, the life of Glenn Curtiss was so incredible that he is widely believed to have been the inspiration for immortal adventure book hero, Tom Swift.


Even today, the name Glenn Curtiss elicits contrasting reactions. Most remember him as the mechanical and aeronautical genius, entrepreneur and business mogul that he undoubtedly was. To a few, however, he remains no more than an opportunistic, patent infringing thief and scoundrel. The whole truth may never be known, but history reveals one clear and overriding fact: Much of early American aeronautical development was due to the visionary and multifaceted talents of aviation pioneer extraordinaire, Glenn Hammond Curtiss.

 

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