Bet you didn’t you know the first pilot’s license ever issued in the United States did not go to Orville or Wilbur Wright, but to a man with an eighth grade education from the small town of Hammondsport, NY (current population about 750 people).
Of course, chances are, you never learned about Glenn H Curtiss in any history books, despite his being a motorcycle pioneer, daredevil, and “fastest man on earth,” or despite his eventually being called the Father of the American Aviation Industry and Father of Naval Aviation.
Yet, despite his many accomplishments, Curtiss remains relatively unknown. An obscure footnote in most textbook accounts of American history. Although he certainly enjoyed capturing trophies and being first, Curtiss it wasn’t fame and recognition that drove him as much as satisfying his need to go fast, and to create something that continues to impact the world today.
Here’s something else that might surprise you. In Hammondsport you’ll find a marker declaring Pleasant Valley the “Cradle of Aviation.” While North Carolina is known as the place where aviation was born, Hammondsport is where it “grew up and went wild” according to Rick Leisenring, Curator at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum. “This is where it really took off.”
Susan Ingalls Lewis writes: “The story of aviation in the United States usually begins with the Wright Brothers and their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Yet the Wrights, though they were the first to successfully test a flying machine, are only a small part of the story of the development of powered aircraft. New York State was actually at the center of aviation pioneering in the years between 1908 and 1929, with developments concentrated first near Keuka Lake, then on Hempstead Plains. This period of aviation history highlights New York as a center of innovation, leadership, competition, and capitalism” (New York Rediscovered).
A founder of the U.S. aircraft industry, Glenn Curtiss began his career as a bicycle racer and builder before he moved to motorcycles. In 1907, Glenn Curtiss set the land-speed record on a motorcycle he built becoming the “Fastest Man on Earth” (perhaps link to Defying Gravity page).
By that time, he had already established a connection with aviation, though he wasn’t seeking to the to the skies himself. As early as 1904, Curtiss began to manufacture engines for dirigibles (think steampunk airships). Famed balloonist,Thomas Baldwin built his hydrogen-filled California Arrow in 1904 and commissioned Curtiss for a Hercules motorcycle engine to successfully power the “lighter-than-air” ship.
Believe it or not, Baldwin and others thought dirigibles were going to be the next big thing in travel (for luxurious flights and also for military use) and in 1908 Baldwin was doing test flights for the Army Signal Corps which paid him for a dirigible that was 95 feet long and powered by an even more powerful Curtiss engine. After a fire devastated his shop in California, Baldwin actually moved to Hammondsport to be closer to Curtiss. His wasn’t the only dirigible (or balloon) company that set up shop in Pleasant Valley.
His ingenuity and his engines made Curtiss sought after by a number of people interested in taking aviation to new heights and not just balloonists. Just three years after Baldwin’s success with the California Arrow, Curtiss would propel himself along that beach in Florida on a motorcycle he built. Later that same year, he was invited by Alexander Graham Bell to be part of the Aerial Experiment Association, a group of men focused on getting a man into the air.
While the Wright Brothers held the first successful controlled flight of a manned aircraft, they did so in secret. As a result, the general pubic took little notice. In 1908, Glenn Curtiss was involved in the first pre-announced publicly witnessed flight in America of a heavier-than-air machine which was held in Hammondsport. A massive crowd turned out for the event which, of course, put extra pressure on the the flight, but Casey Baldwin piloted the “Red Wing” for 20 seconds before it crashed, covering nearly 319 feet in the process. Two months later, Curtiss himself piloted the “White Wing” covering a distance of 1,017 feet in controlled flight.
Also that same year, Curtiss won the first aeronautical prize, the Scientific American Cup, ever awarded in the United States. The prize was to be awarded to whomever made the first public flight of over 1 kilometer (3,280 ft) and the Aero Club (which offered the prize) first contacted the Wright Brothers to offer them the chance. When they declined the opportunity, Curtiss received an invitation on July 1st. He took to the air on July 4th in the “June Bug.” The flight did more than win Curtiss the coveted trophy. It also solidified him as America's foremost aviation pioneer.
Ironically, though little known to most people today, Curtiss was at the center of public awareness when it came to aviation. While the Wright Brothers kept everything very secret, Glenn Curtiss and others shared ideas. As a result, most of the experimentation and innovation going on in aviation between 1907 and the start of WWI took place in Hammondsport helping propel aviation forward as a viable means to transportation.
While Curtiss didn’t originally have his eye on the skies, the contributions he made once he arrived were quite significant. You can learn more about Glenn Curtiss and his remarkable innovations (he held over 90 patents) at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum which houses an exceptional collection of vintage airplanes, hydro-airplanes, motorcycles and automobiles.
Each fall the folks at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum transform Keuka Lake into a runway for seaplanes in homage to Curtiss who did that very thing in the very same location over 100 years ago. An extremely popular two-day event, Wings & Wheels in Hammondsport features a seaplane show at Depot Park, seaplane skills competitions (including a grapefruit “bomb” drop, plus quickest takeoff and spot landings), a seaplane parade, and seaplane rides over Keuka Lake (for a fee), as well as a Classic & Exotic Car Show and more.