Some people are just so good at what they do that they end up changing the course of history without necessarily setting out to do so. Leave it to a man with an eighth-grade education and an obsession with speed to end up defying gravity.
Of course, that wasn’t all Glenn Curtiss defied, so let’s clear the air (so to speak) about that first. Long before open-sourcing was a thing, Glenn Curtiss shared his ideas and inventions with the rest of the world and welcomed others to take those ideas and make them better. Of course, he also found himself embroiled in several lawsuits, as the Wright Brothers didn’t share his philosophy (they held patents on a number of the earliest ideas and inventions regarding flight and sought to prevent others from using or altering those ideas).
We totally get the desire (and the right) for a person to have an idea and protect it. In a world built on consumerism, a world where opportunists are constantly trying to make a dime off the inventions and innovations of others, copyrights and trademarks and patents are incredibly important. But so is offering the rest of the world the chance to improve upon those ideas and innovations.
Sure, Curtiss and the Wright Brothers spent a lot of time in court. But rather than focus on the tension and controversies that marked much of their relationship, we think it’s important to focus on some of the incredible firsts Curtiss was involved in (either directly or indirectly) because while you undoubtedly learned about the Wright Brothers in school, we’re willing to bet you never learned about the man who was called “Father of the American Aviation Industry.”
Thanks to that obsession with speed and a gift for the mechanical, Glenn H. Curtiss may have started out as just another small town boy with a bicycle, but in 1907 he became “the fastest man on earth.” Part of that happened because of Curtiss’ ability to make incomparable engines. After he created one such V-8 engine intended to power an aircraft, he decided to test how powerful the engine was and attached it to a special bike. Then he took the bike (or motorcycle) to Ormond Beach, Florida and hurtled himself headlong into the record books, rumbling across the firm sand at over 136 miles per hour.
He went so fast that it took a mile for him to stop the motorcycle. And on a second run, the frame of the bike actually cracked beneath him, though he was able to keep it from falling apart.
His ability to create exceptional engines drew the interest of aviators and, as a result, Curtiss’s record ride eventually launched him into the world of aviation. From the first time he focused his thoughts on the skies until the start of WWI, most of the experimentation and technological advancements in aviation happened in the small town of Hammondsport. You can read about that in this story on Taking Flight.
Of his many accomplishments, Glenn Curtiss held America’s first officially-recognized air show in Pleasant Valley (not far from where the Curtiss Museum stands today). The significance of this event shouldn’t be underestimated. While the Wright Brothers were carrying on their work in secret, adding an element of mystery and perhaps even some incredulity in the minds of the American public, Curtiss demonstrated that human flight was more than just a dream.
Because of his work with Alexander Graham Bell and others, aviation went from wishful thinking to becoming a realistic means of transportation. “It was his much-publicized Albany to New York flight (see below) that established the aeroplane as having some practical value. It was even suggested that it might have a wartime use. Some months later, Curtiss gave the first demonstration of aerial bombing to Army and Navy representatives at Keuka Lake.”
Glenn Curtiss also mastered the technology necessary for taking off and landing an aircraft on water, developing seaplanes and inventing the world’s first flying boat on the calm, clear waters of Keuka Lake.
But it’s not the peculiarity of this combination of water and sky that makes Curtiss’s aviation contributions worth noting, it’s the fact that these unique aircraft have opened up remote parts of the world to explorers, entrepreneurs, and travelers. They have also played important roles in times of war.
Some firsts Glenn Curtiss was involved in
- The first air show in America was held on a field in Pleasant Valley (near Hammondsport) on July 4, 1908 when Glenn H. Curtiss flew his aircraft named the "June Bug" for one mile up the valley in front of hundreds of spectators.
- In flying the June Bug, Curtiss won the first leg of the Scientific American trophy which established him as “America's foremost aviation pioneer.”
- The first pilot's license ever issued in the United States, Pilot's License No. 1, was issued to Glenn Curtiss of Hammondsport, NY.
- Blanch Stuart Scott, the first American female pilot, was trained by Glenn Curtiss in Hammondsport in 1910.
- Ruth Viola Tice Davis of Hammondsport made the first parachute jump from an open cockpit airplane in 1918.
- In 1909, Curtiss flew a distance of 24.7 miles to establish a new world distance record and win the second leg of the Scientific American trophy.
- Later that same year, in Reims, France, competing against Europe's top aviators, Curtiss won the Gordon Bennet Cup speed race, averaging 46 mph.
- In 1910, the New York World Newspaper offered a $10,000 prize for the first successful flight between Albany and NYC, following the Hudson River. Curtiss won the prize money, nationwide recognition, and in the process the third leg of the Scientific American Competition.
- The first time that a plane took off from a ship was on the 10th of November 1910, when Eugene Ely, flying a Curtiss biplane, took off from the American light cruiser Birmingham (FirstWorldWar.com).
- A final high point in Curtiss's aviation career came in 1919, when the U.S.Navy Curtiss NC-4 Flying Boat became the first aircraft to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean.
- Curtiss was named "Father of Naval Aviation".
You can learn more about Glenn Curtiss’s remarkable accomplishments (he held over 90 patents) and other local history at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum which houses a varied collection of vintage aircraft, motorcycles, cars, boats, and other fascinating items from the past.