Have you ever thought to yourself: “I wonder how fast I could go if I put a 4,400 cc engine on a motorcycle with 1907 style ‘brakes’, tires, and suspension ?” That is about four times as big as a BMW R1200GS. It would be hard to find such a huge engine in 1907. But motorcycle and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss did not have to look far. He had already built the “Model B-8” engine to power dirigibles. Ironically, the engines were never used for the slow speed purpose for which they were designed. Instead, the 150 pound dirigible engine sent Curtiss flying into the history books at a record setting 136 mph land speed. His record, set on the one of a kind “Curtiss V-8 Motorcycle” would hold for 23 years.
From bicycle messenger to racer to shop owner to builder to tinker to motorcycle manufacturer to aviation pioneer. From humble beginnings making motorcycle parts out of soup cans to leading the development of air warfare, Glenn Curtiss lead an inspiring life.
A Rough Start
Glenn’s father died when he was only 4 years old and his sister lost her hearing to meningitis at the age of 6. His mother moved to put her daughter in a school for the deaf. Then she earned a teaching degree and opened a school. We can only imagine that was a pretty stern household. New England no less; they are all about stern and stoic up there on a sunny summer’s day. The serious young Glenn dropped out of school after finishing 8th grade and went to work at Eastman Kodak as a stencil maker and film stock technician. He invented a stencil making machine that the famously innovative company adopted, showing and early talent for creative problem solving.
A Brighter Beginning with Bicycles
Curtiss saved money from his job with Kodak and invested in his first bicycle. Soon after, he left the factory to become a messenger for Western Union. He started repairing bicycles and got into racing. In few short years he raced all around the country, establishing himself as nationwide competitor, and started a bike shop. And then he started two more, and got married, all before the age of 21. As successful as his foray into bicycling was, it was to be short lived. The possibility of greater speeds beckoned.
The Mighty Hercules Motorcycle
Intrigued by the new development of motorized bicycles, or motorcycles, Glenn Curtiss decided to try his hand at inventing one. On his first effort, “the motor nearly tore itself from the frame” by his own chagrined account. He made carburetors out of soup cans, drawing fuel by capillary action through a mesh. By 1902, he was producing the Hercules single cylinder motorcycle for commercial sale. When his competitor, E H Corson of Hendee, the manufacturer of Indian motorcycles, visited his shop in 1904 he was amazed at the tiny scale. Curtiss, astride a Hercules, had just bested Corson’s top riders on their Indians in a race from New York to Maryland.
Pulled to the Skies
In 1903 aeronautic entrepreneur Tom Baldwin approached Curtiss with an appreciation for his engines’ power to weight ratio. Initially unimpressed, Curtiss warmed to the idea of building engines for Baldwin’s dirigibles. In 1904 the two succeeded in producing the first successful dirigible flight in the U.S. Curtiss offered his engines to the Wright Brothers, but they snubbed him, preferring to remain entirely independent. While the Wright Brothers showed no interest in collaboration, his success with the “California Arrow” earned Curtiss the attention of other aviation pioneers who would soon come calling.
A Dirigible Engine for a Motorcycle: The Curtiss V-8 Motorcycle
Curtiss briefly redirected his attention from his efforts to slip the surly bonds of gravity and take flight to the project of going ridiculously fast on the ground. He had developed the forty horsepower dual carburetor Curtiss Model B-8 airfcraft power plant with dirigible propellers in mind, but he decided to try sticking it in a motorcycle frame. One hundred and fifty pounds. 4,400 cc. About four times as big as a really big modern motorcycle engine. In 1907 in Ormond Beach, Florida, Glenn Curtiss set an unofficial but undisputed land speed record, 136.6 mph on his massive V-8 motorcycle. Curtiss’s record for fastest land speed on a motorcycle stood for 23 years – until 1930.
Glenn Curtiss – Aviation Pioneer
In 1907, the year Curtiss set the land speed record, Alexander Graham Bell declared him to be “the greatest motor expert in the country” and invited him to the Aerial Experiment Association. With the support of Bell’s organization, Curtiss developed and test piloted the June Bug, which became the first airplane in history to make an officially observed flight in 1908. The Aero Club of America formed and issued Curtiss the very first pilot’s license, to the great annoyance of the Wright Brothers, who were further down the alphabet.
In 1910 the inventor decided to contribute to the war effort. Curtiss set up demonstrations to show that airplanes could be used to drop bombs. He took a gunner along and demonstrated he could hit targets on the ground with a 50 caliber machine gun. He also invented naval aviation, demonstrating that he could take off from the deck of a ship. Then Curtiss started a company that eventually employed 10,000 people. They produced the famed Curtiss Jenny airplanes he designed for the armed forces.
Wright Brothers Controversy
In 1909, Curtiss sold “The Golden Flyer” an airplane he had designed and built. His was the first such sale in history. The Wright Brothers, who had rejected his overtures earlier, later sued him for the use of ailerons. Curtiss applied for a patent for the invention of ailerons in 1911. He had already claimed the first flight using ailerons in 1908. But the Wright Brothers claimed ailerons were derivative of their wing warping patents. Legal wrangling ensued and continued til 1917 when the government oversaw the formation of a manufacturers association to collect and distribute patent payments. In 1929, the two companies carrying the patents of the feuding sides merged to form Curtiss-Wright, which remains in business today.
Glenn Curtiss – A Legacy of Invention
Curtiss had already sold the company in 1920 for a tidy sum in excess of 30 million USD. A true American, he headed to Florida to retire into the real estate business. He was one of the principal founders of Hialeah, Opa-Locka, and Miami Springs. He died rather young, aged 52, from a blood clot arising as a complication from appendicitis.
Given his long dispute with the Wright Brothers, we think Curtiss would feel vindicated by his memorial in the United States National Inventors Hall of Fame:
“Glenn Curtiss is considered the most influential man in the evolution of aviation. His keen insight into aeronautics and aviation, despite having no formal education past eighth grade, affirms his genius. He holds the Collier Trophy and the Langley Medal.”
Not to mention that 23 year land speed record, the invention of the handlebar throttle, and how about retractable landing gear on airplanes? Training the first female pilot in 1910? So what if ailerons are a shared achievement? You did so much! Thanks Glenn!
Want to read about some other amazing pioneers of motorcycle history? Check out the story of Burt Munro, who spent 40 years building the World’s Fastest Indian, learn about pioneering woman motorcyclist Bessie Stringfield, discover the story of the first motorcycle trip around the world, or read about cross-over racing legend, John Surtees, the Son of the Wind.