Glenn Curtiss (1878 – 1930)

The fastest man in the world for two decades!

Glenn Curtiss was at one time the fastest man in the world and he may be one of the most prolific inventors you’ve likely never heard of. 

Glenn Curtiss was born in 1878 in Hammondsport, a town in western New York. Leaving school after only 8years, his first job was working for a predecessor of the Eastman Kodak company where he worked in various areas of the camera and photography company and even invented a stenciling machine the company used.

Curtiss found his passion while he was working as a Western Union bicycle messenger. He and his friends would race their bicycles during their breaks and Curtiss began tinkering with his bike in an effort to gain ever more speed. Curtiss would become the dominant rider in the “Hammondsport Boys” a local bicycle club sponsored by a local pharmacy.  In 1898 he would open the Curtiss Bicycle Shop in Hammondsport and soon after another in nearby Bath, New York. 

Curtiss’ constant tinkering with bikes led directly to his developing his own motorcycle once internal-combustion engines became more available.  His Hercules motorcycles were so fast that he won a race from New York to Maryland in 1904, besting the bikes from Indian motorcycles, a giant of the then nascent industry. A year before that he had built the engine that would power the Tom Baldwin’s California Arrow in 1904, becoming the first successful dirigible in the United States. Three years later Curtiss would take his first flight, in Baldwin’s Arrow.  Eventually Curtiss would field calls from around the world for his engines and he would build factories to manufacture them. 

In 1907 Curtiss set an unofficial world record of 136.36 miles per hour in Ormond Beach, Florida on a machine he designed and built himself, using a V8 engine he built for airplanes! His record would be broken by a car in 1911 but the motorcycle record would stand for 23 years! In 1908 as part of Alexander Graham Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) Curtiss built and flew the June Bug, on the first scheduled flight in the United States to exceed one mile, winning $25,000 in the process.

In 1909 after a fallout with the AEA, Curtiss, along with several other erstwhile members of the group, formed the Herring-Curtiss Company to manufacture airplanes. The company would become a giant of the early airplane industry, and in 1916 would begin manufacturing the JN-4 “Jenny” biplane trainer for the Army and another version the Navy.  The company would manufacture over 6,800 Jennys and after the war surplus planes would go on to be used by pilots across the country for everything from delivery services, flying schools and of course, Barnstorming, the traveling stunt and airshows that gave many Americans their first ever glimpse of a plane… not to mention people walking on wings of planes!

Curtiss is sometimes called the “Father of Naval Aviation” for his early activities to establish naval aviation.  In 1910 a Curtiss plane was the first ever to take off from the deck of a ship and establish a flight school in San Diego that would come to be known as the “Birthplace of Naval Aviation), in 1911 he built and flew the first seaplane in the United States and in 1919 after the Navy requested a plane that could cross the Atlantic, built the Curtiss NC which became the first plane to make the trip, doing so with a course that included stops in Newfoundland and the Azores. 

In 1920 Glenn Curtiss would retire from aviation and move to Florida.  Ever the innovator and builder, he would develop the cities of Hialeah, Opa-locka and Miami Springs as well as found more than a dozen new companies including the Adams Trailer Corporation, named after his half brother and builder of the Adams Motor Bungalo a forerunner of the modern RV.

Curtiss was a contemporary and competitor of the Wright Brothers.  Not surprisingly, given that they were operating in the same space at the same time and seeking the same success and fortune, the brothers and Curtiss were not friends. Indeed they were bitter enemies and found themselves frequently ensnared in legal disputes, going back to at least 1909. Of the nine cases between the two, the Wrights prevailed in every one.  In 1916 when WWI created a great demand for planes but a legal dispute between the two kept that demand from being satisfied, the government stepped in and essentially forced the pair into a patent sharing agreement so that manufacturing could continue. Later, in 1929, long after both Wright Brothers had left the company, Curtiss would merge with Wright Aeronautical to form the Curtiss Wright Corporation, a Fortune 1000 firm that still operates to this day.

Glenn Curtiss would spend his life chasing speed and adventure and success.  He would succeed on every one of those measures and would help bring America into the age of flight.  He would die in 1930 at the young age of 52 from complications associated with appendicitis. Curtiss entered a world where steam engines and hot air balloons were the most exciting way a man could move and he would leave it one where men were walking on wings of planes soaring thousands of feet off the ground.  That’s quite a journey.