New York’s aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss (1878-1930) warrants a more prominent place in history. He is often sidelined or slighted by historians who focus on the Wright brothers.
Last year, David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers was a good example.
William Hazelgrove’s new book Wright Brothers, Wrong Story: How Wilbur Wright Solved the Problem of Manned Flight, is another example. It demonstrates convincingly that Wilbur Wright was much more important in the development of a “flying machine” than his brother Orville. It has a good deal of information on the Wright family. It is an interesting book.
But it understates Glenn Curtiss’ importance.
The author relies heavily on Cecil Roseberry’s Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight, published in 1972 for information about Curtiss, but doesn’t mention more recent sources, particularly Seth Schulman, Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane (2002), which provides a much fuller account of Curtiss’ pioneering work, and William F. Trimble, Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation (2010).
Curtiss was mainly responsible for developing the system of ailerons, flaps on the trailing edge of airplane wings, as a system of control. That basic system is still in use today. It was more advanced than the Wright Brothers’ system of “wing warping.” But the book more or less accepts the Wrights’ view that Curtiss got the basic idea from them. In addition, the book doesn’t mention that Curtiss is credited with over 500 inventions, including several types of wing designs, controls, throttles, brakes, retractable landing gear, pontoons, and amphibious airplanes.
The book says Curtiss debuted a plane named the June Bug in 1909. Actually, it was 1908. The book doesn’t explain that on July 4, 1908, Curtiss flew that plane at Hammondsport, New York, his home town, in the first pre-announced, publically witnessed, and officially certified (by the Aero Club of America) airplane flight in the nation unlike the Wrights’ flights, which had not been public affairs and officially certified.
The book says that a 1910 court injunction by the Wrights against Curtiss for patent infringement “was a death knell for Curtiss….it put Glenn Curtiss out of business.” Actually, the next year, 1911, after demonstrating the potential of naval aviation for the Navy, he won a contract to build planes for the Navy and train their pilots. For this, he is often called the “Father of Naval Aviation.” The federal government forced a compromise and agreement on technology sharing among Curtiss, Wright, and others in 1917 during World War I. Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation opened a huge plant in Buffalo where it employed 18,000 workers. For a couple of years, it was the largest aircraft company in the world and one of the largest companies in New York State.
The book notes, correctly, that Curtiss probably failed to get off the ground in a 1909 contest with the Wrights and others to fly from New York City to Grant’s Tomb, whereas Wilbur Wright got airborne and circled the Statue of Liberty before having to turn back. But it does not mention that the next year, 1910, in another competition, one the Wrights did not enter, Curtiss became the first person to fly from Albany to New York City.
The Wrights’ primary goal was not to build planes. They did not establish a production company, called the Wright Company, until 1909. Their main goal was to force other aviation pioneers to pay them a licensing fee or be sued for patent infringement. The book says (209) that Curtiss asked them how much they wanted. “Wilbur gave him a fair licensing fee of $1,000 per plane sold and $100 on every event where he flew a plane. That was fair, but Curtiss wouldn’t even do that…” But on page 218, it contradicts this when it says “Back in November 1910, Glenn had tried to work it out with Wilbur….Wilbur came back with a fee of $1,000 for every plane sold and $100 for each day Curtiss flew in an exhibition. It was outrageous and Curtiss wrote Wilbur again, asking for terms. The same terms came back…” The requested fee was indeed outrageous, as noted in the second reference.
Wright Brothers, Wrong Story covers the development of aviation as if the Wright brothers were the center of it all and others were peripheral. That is too narrow. By contrast, Lawrence Goldstone’s Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies (2015), tells the story in a way that puts Curtiss and other pioneers more at center stage. Goldstone demonstrates that there were lots of startups and entrepreneurs working on the development of early airplanes here in the U.S. and Europe, Curtiss foremost among them. It was a time when inventiveness and innovation were needed.
The Wright brothers were good at garnering publicity and left behind a run of correspondence and other archival material that encourages research. Their pioneering craft from the first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in December 1903, the Wright Flyer, is on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The National Park Service has developed a historic site nearby, at Kill Devil Hills, and operates the “Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park” in the Wrights’ hometown, Dayton, Ohio. Curtiss was much less of a self-promoter. He invented, tinkered, and kept improving things but did not spend much time on correspondence or written reports. He gave few news interviews. He was inclined to share his inventions rather than keeping them proprietary and locked up with patents. His designs endured whereas some of the Wrights’ engineering innovations were obsolete within a few years after their Kitty Hawk flight.
The wonderful Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport attests to his accomplishments.
But, as this new book reminds us, we need more.
Photo of Glen Curtiss provided by.