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Famous People of the Finger Lakes

Glenn Hammond Curtiss (1878-1930)


Glenn Hammond Curtiss (1878-1930)Born in Hammondsport in Steuben County, Curtiss was named after the glen in which Hammondsport is located and the town's founder, Lazarus Hammond.


In 1892, when Curtiss was fourteen, he finished 8th grade and never looked back. Bicycles were all the rage. Curtiss joined the Hammondsport Boys, a bike racing club, with his friend Tank Waters. By 1901 he had opened a bicycle shop in Hammondsport to sell bikes of his own design. That same year Curtiss attended the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. There he saw a motorcycle in the Hall of Industry. He ordered a motor and, with much revision, attached it to a bicycle and created his own motorcycle. Every inch a daredevil, he raced around on it wearing a cap and goggles.


This inspired him to design and build his own engines out of light aluminum alloys to increase the weight-to-power ratio. He worked with the location of the motor on the frame, moving it near the back wheel to be lower and more centered on the frame. This provided more stability.


In May 1903 Curtiss won two races and set the world speed record on the same cycle. His 3-HP single- ($20) and double-cylinder ($27) cycles were in immediate demand. Soon the Curtiss Motorcycle Company in Hammondsport had over 100 employees.


At the time, a number of people, including the Wright brothers, were experimenting with flight. Thomas Baldwin was looking for a light engine that had a high power-to-weight ratio for his dirigibles. He hired Curtiss to manufacture these engines and decided to move his own factory to Hammondsport to be near the production of the engines he would use for his air ships. Other aviators followed suit. Hammondsport became a mecca for early aviation with Curtiss engines as the hub.


In order to make Baldwin's dirigibles go faster, Curtiss designed the first V-shaped, 8-cylinder, 40-HP engine--the first V-8 engine. He put the engine on a motorcycle and, in 1907, set a speed record at Ormond Beach, Florida of 136 mph. That won him the title as the Fastest Man in the World.


Alexander Graham Bell approached Curtiss for his help in designing a working aircraft. The work was conducted in Hammondsport with Bell, Curtiss, and several engineers working as a team. Their first craft, called The Red Wing, was tested on a frozen Keuka Lake. It crashed on its second flight. But Curtiss continued to experiment and discovered the use of ailerons (small, flexible wings), which he installed on a plane. On his 30th birthday, Curtiss flew 1000 feet.


Scientific American announced that it would award a prize to anyone who could fly their own plane. Curtiss completed his new plane--The June Bug--in just over a month. The Wright brothers declined to participate, contending that their plane could only fly from a track. On July 4, 1908 in the field of Stoney Brook Farm in Hammondsport sat The June Bug. Curtiss donned a leather jacket, entered the cockpit, and revved the engine. The June Bug glided into the air. Flying over three photographers, The June Bug passed the one-kilometer mark and kept going. Curtiss won the magazine's prize. A month later Curtiss attended the international air show in France and won the Gordon Bennett trophy for the fastest plane--46 mph.


In May 1911 Curtiss won $10,000 for flying from Albany to New York City (150 miles). The trip took three hours with Curtiss flying just above the tree tops. The open cockpit plane landed in Manhattan to cheers from the crowd. He was called King of the Air.


During World War I, Curtiss trained U.S. Navy pilots to take off from and land on ships. He designed and built planes that could land on water. These "flying boats," as they were called, were used to attack submarines. After the war, he went on to develop other motorized vehicles, including scooters, life-boats, and motor boats.


Curtiss is buried in Hammondsport's Pleasant Valley Cemetery.


See also:

Glenn Curtiss: The Forgotten Eagle, an Emmy award-winning video by Brian Frey.

The Glenn Curtiss Museum is located at 8419 State Route 54, Hammondsport, NY 14840. It is open year round and acts as a testament to Curtiss's genius.

Glenn Curtiss Memorial Park

Glenn Curtiss Historical Society



Photo courtsey of The Glenn Curtiss Museum.








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