Friday, July 10, 2009

Glenn Curtiss, a True American Tinkerer

By Bernard J. Rudberg

Bernie Rudberg is a retired engineer, historian and railroader who serves on the Board of Historic Towns of Dutchess County, the Dutchess County Genealogical Society and as the current President of the Hopewell Junction Depot Restoration Inc. His article examining the history of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge is scheduled for the August 2009 launch issue, and he will be a regular contributor to future issues.

With only an 8th grade education, Glenn Curtiss became one of the most influential inventors in aviation history. Born in 1878 in Hammondsport, NY, Glenn developed an interest in bicycles and later motorcycles. At his shop near Buffalo he designed and built engines and by 1903 held a worlds record of 64 MPH on a motorcycle. A few years later he built a V8 engine to power another world record motorcycle and became “the worlds fastest man” at 136 MPH in 1907.

One of his early jobs was with the Kodak Film Company in Rochester, NY. He worked for George Eastman who was the brother of former Poughkeepsie mayor Harvey Eastman. Glenn invented a stencil machine that was used to mark film boxes at Kodak for many years.

His interests soon turned to “aeroplanes” and he earned the first pilot license issued in the US. Glenn began building planes in competition with the Wright Brothers. The Wrights had made the first powered flight in 1903 but they were very secretive about their work and did not publicize their flights. Curtiss changed all that by announcing his flights and gathering large crowds.

By 1909 he had built several models, slowly improving the designs with each version. Also in 1909 he began training pilots. In the summer of 1909 Curtiss went to Rheims France to enter a competition with aircraft from other countries. There were five Wright planes also entered. Glenn won the competition and the Gordon Bennett trophy in August 1909. The Wright planes did not win any of the events. Coming home to the US, Glenn Curtiss was hit with a patent lawsuit by the Wright Brothers. The main point of contention was the Wright wing-warping control vs Curtiss aileron control. That suit dragged on through the courts for several years with the Wrights finally winning in 1914. The Curtiss ailerons were far superior and have been used on almost all planes since 1911. Even though the Wrights won the case, their wing-warping control has not been used since.

Back in the US there was a Pulitzer prize offered for anyone who could fly from Albany, NY to New York City, a distance of well over 100 miles. At that time the record flight was 24 miles. Curtiss took up the challenge. On 29 May 1910 he took off from Albany in his newly built “Hudson Flier” which was equipped with both wheels and floats in case he had to ditch in the Hudson River. Today a blue and yellow historical marker shows the spot where he took off.

Glenn Curtiss at the controls of the Hudson Flier in 1910

The New York Times chartered a special train to follow the flight along the New York Central RR tracks on the east bank of the river. Many dignitaries were on board including Glenn’s wife, who waved from the train window.

The Hudson River was known for tricky winds and turbulence, mainly because of the high hills and cliffs along the banks. Glenn left Albany and had an uneventful flight south to a refueling stop near Poughkeepsie. The refueling was to take place at a section called Camelot, which is along the riverbank south of the present day IBM main plant off South Road. Curtiss landed but there was no gasoline waiting for him. He managed to borrow ten gallons of fuel from local motorists and was off again on his way south.

Passing through the highlands near West Point proved tricky. After almost falling out of his plane flying through turbulence, he managed to gain control and finally saw the skyscrapers of New York ahead.

His engine developed an oil leak so as a precaution he made a second landing on a grassy lawn near Columbia University. After a quick fill up of oil and gasoline he again took off south past Manhattan with people cheering and boats blowing whistles. Glenn Curtiss made a triumphant circle around the Statue of Liberty and then landed at the designated point on Governors Island to cheering crowds. This flight marked another record—Glenn Curtiss carried the first airmail, a letter from the mayor of Albany to the mayor of New York City. He had flown 152 miles at an altitude of about 700 feet averaging a speed of 52 MPH, shattering the old record of 24 miles by a wide margin. Glenn Curtiss collected the prize of $10,000 and also the permanent possession of the Scientific American Trophy.

A few months later in November 1910 the Hudson Flier again made headlines. A wooden deck was added to the bow of the US Navy Cruiser Birmingham and the Hudson Flier became the first plane to launch from a Navy Ship. In 1911 a Curtiss plane was the first to land and take off from the wooden deck built on the US Navy cruiser Pennsylvania in San Francisco Harbor. Glenn Curtiss is called “The father of Naval Aviation”.

Replica of a Curtiss Model D at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

The Model D was the first Curtiss aircraft sold to the US military. Glenn Curtiss sold his model D to the US military which began a long association with high performance aircraft including the famous “Flying Tiger P-40's “ of World War II. If you would like to see a Curtiss model D up close, there is a replica in the collection of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck. It is in flying condition if the weather is not too windy.

In 1909 Glenn Curtiss established a seaplane experimental base and a pilot training facility at North Island near San Diego. Out of that effort came a series of seaplanes and flying boats including the four-engine US Navy NC-4, the first plane to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1919.

World War I proved to be a busy time for Glenn Curtiss and his company. Probably his most famous WW I plane was the JN-4 “Jenny” trainer. After the war many Jenny’s were sold as surplus and became barnstormers. There is an original Jenny in the collection of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. The Curtiss company continued on building racing planes in the 1930's and thousands of military planes during WW II. The Wright Company had fallen on hard times by being too conservative. The embittered Orville Wright sent the original Wright flyer to a science museum in London. It was not returned to the US until 1948 when it was moved to the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

In 1921 Glenn Curtiss retired from the company he had founded and began to develop real estate in Florida. Such towns as Hialeah and Miami Springs were his projects. Of course he could not stop tinkering. He invented a shallow draft boat driven by an aircraft propeller to be used in the swamps of Florida.

After years of bitter rivalry, the Curtiss Company and the Wright Company merged in 1929. None of the original people were still involved at that point. It was strictly a business deal. Glen Curtiss and the surviving Orville Wright remained enemies to the end. Glenn Curtiss died on 23 July 1930 at age 52. He had a pulmonary embolism after an appendix operation.

In 1911 Glenn Curtiss had patented the aileron control surfaces for aircraft wings. Almost every plane built since 1911 has used his aileron design including private and military planes plus commercial airliners and even the space shuttle. Not one of the Wright Brothers inventions has been used on modern aircraft. The Wright Brothers may have been the first off the ground, but Glenn Curtiss built the foundation of the modern aircraft industry with his inventions and improvements.

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