By Christopher A. Sawyer
The world is more than familiar with the exploits of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the men most often credited with the first heavier-than-air flight. The bicycle shop owners from Dayton, Ohio have entered into American folklore, and sit as shining examples for industriousness, fortitude, inquisitiveness and the scientific pursuit of knowledge. Mention to Wright proponents the name Glenn Curtiss, however, and you are likely to be faced with someone surprisingly ready to vilify the man from upstate New York. The Wrights were inventors who studied a problem to its logical conclusion, tested their hypotheses and theories, learned from the results and took the next step forward. Glenn Hammond Curtiss, they argue, was just the opposite; an uneducated man whose additions to the airplane art were built on spade work done by the Wrights. Funny thing is, history isn’t always as it has been told.
That, in a nutshell, is the premise behind Kirk W. House’s biography of the taciturn Glenn H. Curtiss. A former schoolteacher and administrator, House spent nearly seven years as curator or director-curator of the Glenn Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York. Whether this makes him an avid fan or a person with unparalleled access to the Curtiss archives is for the reader to decide. However, House goes to great lengths to be fair to everyone involved by looking at subjects from more than one angle, and this gives Hell-Rider to King of the Air a level of trustworthiness that might otherwise be lacking.
That credibility is appreciated as Curtiss’ life story reads like fiction. At the age of four, Glenn Curtiss saw his world collapse. His grandfather and father died within five months of each other, and his mother and grandmother were left to care for him, his two-year-old sister, and run the harness business his father had started. It wasn’t an easy life, especially since his mother and grandmother had very different personalities; the older woman down-to-earth and extremely practical and the younger one athletic, vibrant and flighty. Though Curtiss and his mother didn’t mesh — he left to live with his grandmother as soon as he was able — he nevertheless inherited her artistic streak, though he applied it to practical things. A meticulous planner, Glenn Curtiss had the reputation of being able to fix almost anything.
His first job, stenciling film canisters at the booming Eastman Company, proved his mechanical aptitude and guile. Curtiss created a machine to stencil the cases at a much faster rate than could be achieved by hand, smuggled it into the Eastman plant, and proceeded to convince his bosses that everyone in his section be paid for the pieces they completed. When they agreed, he used his machine to increase his output tenfold. Curious as to how he had accomplished this, his superiors discovered the machine, copied it and made it their own.
In the following years, Curtiss would move back to Hammondsport and take up bicycle racing at which he excelled. This led to bicycle repair and sales, building his own designs under the “Hercules” brand, and — after a visit to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY — designing and building motorcycles. This happened while the 23-year-old Curtiss was providing for his wife, sickly son and aging grandmother. The death of his young son that same year probably helped Curtiss, who had a taste for speed, to become the racer he became: fearless. And it also propelled him to fill the void in his heart with work on engines and motorcycles. The Hercules brand soon gave way to the Curtiss name, and the engines quickly grew from a 2.5-hp single to V-twins and, after an abortive attempt at a V4, to an inline four-cylinder. A pair of the inline fours were joined to create a V8 motorcycle with bevel-drive to the rear wheel — in 1907.
Concurrent with his work on motorcycle engines came requests to use Curtiss engines to power dirigibles, his V8 motorcycle having set an unofficial speed record of more than 136 mph over two miles. Obviously, thought some flying pioneers, this Curtiss fellow knew how to make things move along quickly.
Convinced he had done everything that he wished in the motorcycle sphere, Curtiss took to the sky — literally. His first trip skyward was typically Curtiss — he took friend and customer Thomas Baldwin’s dirigible into the air on a solo flight, reaching the unheard of speed of 20 mph. Glenn Curtiss was hooked, especially since he could see that the just emerging automobile would quickly move the motorcycle from a main mode of transportation to an also-ran. The sky, however, was full of promise, and Curtiss was inquisitive and brash enough to feel he could dominate it. [In one of history’s ironies, an early student at his flying school was Lieutenant Chikuhei Nakajima of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Nakajima and Curtiss airplanes would face each other in the Pacific Theater during World War II. After the war, the Nakajima Aircraft Company was recast at Fuji Heavy Industries, makers of today’s Subaru automobiles.]
I’ll leave it to you to discover what happened next, but will say that I was surprised to see that Glenn Curtiss, in addition to building the company that made the famous Curtiss Jenny and Warhawk (World Wars I and II, respectively), also was instrumental in the creation of aerodynamic travel trailers and developed the cities of Hialeah and Opa-Locka, Florida. He also worked to solve the problems that beset early automobiles, particularly poor streamlining, increasing weight and poor ride. Curtiss even patented a “one-box” front-drive minibus that could credibly be looked upon as a progenitor of today’s minivan. Unfortunately, Curtiss — a man who had accomplished more than most men with just an eight-grade education — died on July 23, 1930 from a pulmonary embolism after an operation to remove his inflamed appendix.
Unfortunately for this reader, House’s organization of the Curtiss’ story often got in the way. Though his use of “Panorama” (life story and setting) and “Close-Up” (examination of his work and methods) chapters impart important information about the life and times of Glenn H. Curtiss, they can stop the narrative dead in its tracks, making it difficult to pick up the thread when the story once again progresses. Despite this, Hell-Rider to King of the Air is an important read for anyone who believes 1) that the story of the airplane begins and ends with the Wright brothers, and 2) innovation and progress come from bureaucratic organizations. The life story of the taciturn, uneducated, yet brilliant Glenn Curtiss proves this is not the case.
Author: Kirk W. House
Publisher: SAE International