Glenn Hammond Curtiss was the son of a harness shop owner in Hammondsport, N.Y. Born in 1878, Curtiss grew up cultivating an infatuation with machinery. By 1900 he was working on various ways to improve the newly created motorcycles, and by the age of 25 he was known as a racer and manufacturer of motorcycles.
It was Curtiss' success with motorcycles that made him attractive to Tom Baldwin, an early dirigible enthusiast, who persuaded Curtiss to produce a better engine for balloonists. After he did so, "balloonatics" started to descend on Hammondsport, thinking that they had found the best man to create balloon success. Curtiss, though, was not excited. After one ride in a dirigible, he was reported to have said, "Not a bad sport, but there is no place to go."Finally, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, talked Curtiss into tackling heavier-than-air flight. Bell asked Curtiss to build an engine for him and then offered him $25 a day to come to Nova Scotia with the engine and stay to supervise any necessary alterations. Curtiss did not take it seriously, but the experiments with Bell proved to be important for the future of aviation.
After developing a power-driven kite, the group constructed a biplane with a 30-foot wingspan and powered by a 24-horsepower motorcycle engine. In 1908, this plane, called "Red Wing," flew more than 300 feet before stalling out and slipping back to the ground. They built several other prototypes and, in June, flew one called "June Bug" more than 1,000 feet successfully.
They entered "June Bug" in competition sponsored by Scientific American magazine. To win, an entrant had to fly more than one kilometer (3,280 feet), a much greater distance than "June Bug" had flown to date. It was ready for trial on July 4, 1908, at Hammondsport. Curtiss was at the controls when it went up at 7:30 p.m., rose slowly and flew well beyond the designated finish line before banking and landing. Since the Wright brothers had refused to allow anyone to view their flights, this event was a major one. It was the first officially recognized and observed flight in America.
After this event, Curtiss' name become automatically associated with flying as a new sport, and contests and exhibitions became more and more common both in Europe and the United States. In July 1909, Curtiss flew almost 25 miles in the second Scientific American trophy meet. Afterward, he agreed to participate as the only American in an international contest in late August in Reims, France. It became especially interesting to Curtiss because the Wright brothers decided not to compete.
Because Curtiss had only one plane, he entered only the most prestigious of the contests - the Gordon Bennett Cup race for the fastest speed over 20 kilometers, with a cash prize of $5,000. Louis Bleriot, a French aviator, the first man to fly across the English Channel, was favored to win. Bleriot had five planes, and one was thought capable of flying with an engine of 80 horsepower, while Curtiss could hit only 50 at best.
When the Bennett Cup race began on August 28, Curtiss was first to fly, and he used a specific technique. He gained more altitude than the others in order to allow him to descend at top speed on the final lap. He also banked on the turns more sharply than most pilots thought wise. He covered the course in 15 minutes, 50 seconds, an average speed of 46 miles an hour. Bleriot did the first lap in slightly better time than Curtiss had done, but by the time the judges compared their watches at the end of this flight, it was clear that Curtiss had won the Bennett Cup by less than six seconds.
Curtiss suddenly became "the fastest man of the earth and skies" and was honored extravagantly in both Europe and the United States. His most publicized feat took place in May 1910 when he determined to become the first person to fly between Albany and New York City within 24 hours - and land on water. The New York Times devoted six full pages to a description of this flight.
Tragically, Curtiss never received his just due from history. Beginning in 1909, he became enveloped in a complicated set of legal maneuvers on the part of the Wright brothers to establish patents both in the United States and abroad on nearly every aspect of their work. Never a businessman, Curtiss faced an enormous financial and legal challenge that eventually drove him from aviation. He died a bitter man in 1930 at only 52 years of age, due to complications of appendicitis. It was a sad and ironic passage from aviation history.