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Friday, July 18, 2014

Glenn Curtiss- Portrait of an American Badass

     Most people out there have never heard of Glenn Curtiss. Unless you are really into vintage engineering you would rarely run across that name. He was a man of immense talent and a truly unique American, even for his time. In the early years of the 20th century he was an engineer that became famous and severely comptetitve in the two completely different areas of motorcycles and aviation. In fact he was a constant thorn in the side of the Wright Brothers and the heads of the largest American motorcycle firms at the time such as Indian Motorcycle and Harley-Davidson. He was not only a man who designed machines, but he raced them.

     Curtiss was only 23 years old when he developed an interest in the new technology of motorcycles in 1901. At that time there was no Harley-Davidson (1903) and Indian Motorcycle had just started producing motorcycles instead of bikes. Other famous brands like Norton(1898) were making bikes. Indian was the one dominated the field in terms of speed. In 1903 their chief engineer Oscar Hedström set a speed record of 56mph. That same year Curtiss beat it by going 64 on his own bike with his own custom engine. He also humiliated Indian in a long distance race from New York to Maryland. When an executive visted Curtiss that year to see his operation, he was shocked to see the entire Curtiss Motorcycle operation was not a factory, but a back room in a small shop. This apprently humiliated him since Indian had a large factory by then and had been beat my a man basically operating out of a shack.

     Not feeling comfortable with such a slow speed, Curtiss built a custom bike in over the next few years. by 1907 he had adapted a large 4,410cc V8 aviation engine to one of his custom frames and blew the record away by going 136mph. He was the fastest human on earth until 1911 and the fastest man on a bike until 1930. He was given the nickname Hell Rider by the papers and where ever he went, he created a media frenzy. But his talents as I mentioned were not limited to just motorcycles and his triumphs would best two of the most iconic names in all of technological history...Wilbur and Orville Wright.

     The year Curtiss set his speed record on a motorcycle was the year the Wright Brothers became the first humans to achieve controlled heavier than air flight at Kittyhawk. Curtiss, always interested in new technologies that utilized a motor, soon found himself tinkering with airplanes as well as motorcycles. In 1904 the first successful American dirigible was powered by a Curtiss engine. In 1907 after his achievements in the speed record using aviation engines, Curtiss was brought into the Aerial Experiment Association by the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Bell publicly stated he believed Curtiss to be the best motor engineer in the America in statements to the media. In the AEA he helped design new aircraft and in 1908 he flew his personal design to over 5,000ft which earned him a prize of almost 2,500 dollars for this which happened to be one of the first public demonstrations of aeronautics in America. This earned him acclaim and Glenn Curtiss was awarded the first pilots license in the USA.

   In 1909 Curtiss was competing in Europe in aerial competitions against Wright produced aircraft and beat them handily in France that year. The following year he became the first person to complete a "long distance flight" of about 140 miles which earned him a 10,000 dollar prize put up by famed American newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. That same year he also proved airplanes could be used for military purposes, completing a simulated bombing run as well as designing and building the first plane to take off from a ship at sea. That not being enough within a year he had invented the seaplane. But the storm clouds of war and legal battles from 1909 to 1916 with the Wright Brothers over patents left Curtiss dismayed and tired. By 1920 he decided to sell out and retire. A year before his death he saw his company merge with the Wright company in 1929.

    Glenn Curtiss is a man largely forgotten by the public while other pioneers in his fields receive more acclaim. He may not have been the first to make a motorcycle, but in his day he was certainly the best at it. He may have not been the first man to fly, but he dominated the men who did it. He was a visionary who saw the potential of the aircraft a full 30 years before it became apparent to the rest of the world. Airpower would be the dominate force in the second world war, and by 1910 he was already pioneering that idea as well as the role of carriers and seaplanes in naval combat.

 1907 V8 Motorcycle- Can you imagine going almost 140mph on that!?

The 1907 bike resides as the Smithsonian today

Closeup of the 4,400cc Aviation V8 in the bike

The 1908 public flight that won Curtiss 2,500 dollars for flying about 5,000 feet

Another shot of the 1908 flight

Curtiss in his "June Bug" 1908 record setting plane



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