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Glenn Hammond Curtiss: Aviation Pioneer

Like his main competitors the Wright brothers, Glenn Curtiss was involved in bicycling before he became interested in aviation, first racing bicycles and later motorcycles. Curtiss developed a successful motorcycle business in Hammondsport, N.Y., for which he designed and built relatively light and efficient engines. In 1904 famed balloonist Thomas Scott Baldwin asked Curtiss to build him a dirigible engine. The success of this engine brought more orders and greater awareness of his talent.

In 1907 Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, organized the Aerial Experiment Association and asked Curtiss to join as the director of experiments. In May 1908 Curtiss took his first airplane flight in the White Wing, an aircraft designed by Casey Baldwin (Lt. Thomas Selfridge also flew it, thereby becoming the first military person to fly an airplane.)

A month later Curtiss flew an airplane of his own design, the June Bug. Curtiss built on the success of his first airplane by demonstrating it (and follow-on designs) before large crowds, earning large cash prizes and winning several awards -- including the Scientific American Trophy three years in a row, the Gold Medal of the Aero Club, the Gordon Bennett Trophy, the Langley Medal, and the Collier Trophy.

Curtiss sold his first military airplane, the Model D Type IV, to the Signal Corps in April 1911, and continued to build more powerful engines and new airplanes for the military. Of particular note was Curtiss' development of the flying boat, the JN-4 trainer (the most widely used U.S. aircraft of World War I), and the OX-5 engine used in the JN-4 and other aircraft. During WWI, the Curtiss Aeroplane Motor Co. became the world's largest producer of aircraft.

Shortly after the end of WWI, Curtiss left the aviation business, passing away in 1930 at the age of 52. Ironically, although he and the Wrights fought a bitter patent struggle between 1909-1917, the companies they founded merged in 1929 to become the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Co.

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Related Fact Sheets
Curtiss 1911 Model D
Curtiss JN-4D Jenny
Curtiss OX-5 Engine
Other Resources
Glenn H. Curtiss Museum