Today, the other life of an airplane-maker. 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.
Pick up any book on the early
history of flight and you'll see Glenn Curtiss'
name. It was Alexander Graham Bell who
drew Curtiss into airplane building. The older Bell
had taken a great interest in flight, and, in 1907,
he hired Curtiss to head a group of young
designers. After working for several months on some
of Bell's radical ideas about flight, Curtiss and
the group decided to develop a more conventional
design -- and they succeeded.
After that, Bell suggested that they form their own
company. They did; and Curtiss, the consummate
entrepreneur, has been hailed as a great pioneer of
flight ever since. But what was it, we might
wonder, that attracted Bell to Curtiss in the first
Born in 1878, Curtiss had remarkable mechanical
aptitude. He was only seven when the safety bicycle
came into being. At twenty-two, he (like the Wright
Brothers, whom he later battled over airplane
patents) opened a bicycle shop. But Curtiss was an
ambitious businessman. He went on to
create his own bicycle factory.
Then he acquired two engine-cylinders
and built his own engine. In 1902, he announced
plans to start making motorcycles as well as
bicycles. Four years later, he was making an
avant-garde machine with a twin-vee engine
and twist-grip throttle control.
Twist-grip control had actually been invented by
motorcycle pioneer Sylvester
Roper just after the Civil War and then
forgotten. Indeed, the motorcycle itself had hardly
gone to market before Curtiss. The venerable Indian
Motorcycle Company actually started making bikes
the same year Curtiss did. Bill Harley and Arthur
Davidson built their first motorcycle one year
But back in 1904, before motorcycles captured the
public, Californian Thomas Scott Baldwin had gone
to Curtiss to get an engine for his new dirigible,
Arrow. The dirigible was a success, and
Bell learned of the connection between Curtiss and
flight when he visited the Curtiss motorcycle booth
at a New York City Expo.
It was under Bell's influence that
Curtiss drifted away from motorcycles toward
flight. He and his engineers built several series
of experimental airplanes. They created an early
seaplane and began their N and J series. In 1914,
Curtiss merged these two designs into the famous
JN-4, better known as the Curtiss Jenny.
The Jenny cruised at sixty miles per hour.
WW-I pilots, like my father, learned flying in the
Jenny. It was still the basic cheap
American airplane long after the War. Its low
airspeed made it ideal for barnstormers at county
fairs. They walked its wings, flew loops, and
parachuted from it.
But Curtiss first revealed his genius in the
motorcycle. His was not the genius of seminal
invention, but genius that shaped seminal
ideas. What did Bell see in Curtiss? He saw pure
mechanical energy, skimming the ground and skimming
the sky. He saw speed and verve. He saw the driving
force that made our twentieth century.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gridler, A., Very First Vee. Cycle World,
April 2002, pp. 86-89.
Cameron, K., Creative Power: Glenn Curtiss:
Inventor, Manufacturer, Racer, Pilot. Cycle
World, April 2002, pp. 90-92.
Eltscher. L. R., and Young, E. M.,
Curtiss-Wright: Greatness and Decline. New
York: Twayne Publishers, 1998. (See esp. Chapter
I do not have a good copyright-free image of an
early Curtiss motorcycle; However, many may are shown
on the Internet. I am grateful to Keith
Hollingsworth, UH Mechanical Engineering Department,
for suggesting the topic and for providing the
Gridler and Cameron articles (above.)
Glenn Curtiss taking off in one of his early
A Curtiss Jenny
, Courtesy of the US Air
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.