Glenn H. Curtiss Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The most prolific aeronautical inventor and manufacturer of airplanes and airplane engines in the United States well into the 1920’s.

Born in 1878, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a champion bicycle racer, developed gasoline engines to power his bicycles, and he set international speed records on bicycles powered by engines with up to eight cylinders. It was Curtiss’s engine expertise that led him to join Alexander Graham Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) in 1907 as its director of experiments. In the AEA, Curtiss quickly became instrumental in the design of a series of successful airplanes. The Curtiss White Wing became the first American airplane to take off on wheels instead of skids and the first to use ailerons for roll control in turns. His June Bug made the first “public” flight that was filmed and witnessed by the press in 1908. This flight would win Curtiss the Scientific American prize. The French press proclaimed Curtiss the “Champion Aviator of the World” after he set new speed records in winning the Gordon Bennett trophy in France in 1909.

Curtiss was sued by Wilbur and Orville Wright, who claimed that his use of ailerons violated their patents for controlling the roll of an airplane. Although many experts believed that ailerons were different from the Wrights’ use of wing-warping, the courts were harder to convince. Repeated lawsuits kept Curtiss tied up in the courts for years, until the government intervened in the national interest, as the country entered World War I.

Curtiss further angered the Wrights when, at the request of the Smithsonian Institution, he agreed to prove that Samuel Pierpont Langley’s aerodrome, an uncrewed flying machine driven by a gasoline-fueled, steam-powered engine which had crashed in the Potomac River twice in attempting the first airplane flight, was actually capable of flight. Curtiss made significant modifications to Langley’s design, and when it flew, the Smithsonian proclaimed the aerodrome to be the first heavier-than-air craft capable of flight. The Wrights never forgave Curtiss for trying to usurp their rightful claim as the first to fly.

Curtiss established flying schools throughout the country and contracted to train Navy and Army aviators as he continued to develop newer airplanes. His Curtiss JN-4, or Jenny, a trainer aircraft, was the best American-designed plane to come out of World War I, and surplus Jennys became the airplane of choice for hundreds of aspiring pilots after that war.

A prolific designer of land-and-water-based airplanes for the Navy, Curtiss designed the NC-4, the first airplane to fly across the Atlantic, in 1919, and a series of racing planes that set world speed records in the early 1920’s. His OX series of airplane engines were dominant in the U.S. market. Curtiss died in Hammondsport, New York, on July 23, 1930, of a pulmonary embolism suffered after a bout with acute appendicitis.

Bibliography
  • Bilstein, Roger. Flight in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Chapter 1 offers a thorough review of the history of aeronautics and space technology in the United States.
  • Christy, Joe. American Aviation: An Illustrated History. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1987. Chapters 1 through 3 provide an excellent overview of U.S. history in aviation and space. Profusely illustrated with historic photographs.
  • Roseberry, C. R. Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991. The definitive biography of Glenn Curtiss with particular detail given to his many inventions and his court battles with the Wright brothers and others.

Airplanes

Jennys

Heavier-than-air craft

History of human flight

Samuel Pierpont Langley

Transatlantic flight

World War I

Wright brothers

Categories: History Content