Today, the first airplane prize. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
We've heard of the Orteig Prize: $25,000 for
the first non-stop aeroplane flight from New York to Paris. Hotel owner
Raymond Orteig first offered it 1919. But it was eight years before
Lindbergh flew the 5,800 kilometer route to win it.
I mention the distance because the very first air prize was a $2,500 long-distance
prize -- close to a hundred thousand of today's dollars. It was offered in 1907.
To win it, one had to fly a distance of -- you ready for this? --
one kilometer, a scant six tenths of a mile. (Just think:
Lindbergh got around seven dollars a mile while this paid $4,000 per mile.)
In any case, the Wright brothers were a shoo-in. One sponsor, Scientific American
Magazine, was doing penance for doubting them after they first reported flying.
The other, the Aero Club of America, had supported them all along. By then the Wrights
had repeatedly flown much further. All they had to do to win was show up.
But then a dark horse appeared: Alexander Graham Bell had formed a group of four young
inventors called the Aerial Experiment Association. One was Glenn Curtiss who designed
their third aeroplane, the June Bug. Curtiss wrote to say he wanted to enter.
The alarmed contest organizers urged the Wrights to hurry up.
But the Wrights we're working on the sale of their aeroplane to the Army. And Orville
was writing an article for the esteemed Century Magazine. He knew that article
that would help cement their place as the aeroplane's inventors. Then the last straw:
They found they'd have to take off from the ground, instead of using a catapult.
Wilbur wrote to decline the invitation
So Curtiss took the prize in Hammondsport, New York. His June Bug flew 1.6
kilometers -- a full mile -- at forty miles an hour.
Period photo of Glenn Curtiss' June Bug winning the race.
Trouble followed: The Wrights' controlled their aeroplane with a set of cables that warped
the wings. Bell had invented, instead, a hinged airfoil, like those used ever since.
Curtiss used Bell's airfoils on his June Bug and the Wrights were furious.
This is a replica of Curtiss Golden Flier, built a year after the June Bug. Like the
June Bug, it had ailerons, separate from the wings, mounted between each pair of wing tips. The
orientation of the horizontal stabilizers in front of the pilot is likewise under his control.
(Photo by J. Lienhard)
They figured that an airfoil was just a modification of their method. They sued Curtiss
for patent infringement and the patent wars went on 'til the government took over airplane
building in WW-I. By then both parties were drained.
Wilbur had died of typhoid fever,
and Curtiss emerged as the more successful airplane builder.
But we now had a culture of aeroplane prizes. Prizes were a driving force from the
June Bug's one mile flight until the second world war. The Schnieder and Bendix
Trophies, the Bennett Cup, the Great Britain to Australia Prize ... on and on. America's
wildly productive love affair with flight did not begin at Kitty Hawk. It really began
five years later in Hammondsport.
After Glenn Curtiss' nearly forgotten flight in his nearly forgotten June Bug, we were,
for a season, quite swept away in the longer-higher-faster-further culture of air races
and air prizes.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on the spinoff of Bell's Aerial Experiment Association, see Michael Barratt's
Episode, soon to follow this one, on the death of Thomas Selfridge.
For an excellent contemporary analysis of flight, at that time, see V. Lougheed,
Vehicles of the Air: A Popular Exposition of Modern Aeronautics with Working Drawings.
(Chicago: The Reilly and Britton Co. 1909/1910).
The Winning Flight of the "June Bug" Aeroplane for The Scientific American Trophy.
Scientific American Magazine (July, 1908). (To read this on line,
On line reports of the dollar value of the Scientific American Trophy vary. Some give $25,000; some $2,500.
The latter number is given by the US Government and the Aero Club.
See also this Wright Brothers page,
And the Wikipedia June Bug page (which quotes the suspect prize value of $25,000.)
Curtiss at the controls of an unspecified 1909 aeroplane. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.