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Glenn Curtiss: Biography, Aircraft & Motorsport

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

Glenn Curtiss was a remarkable man for his contributions to motorsports and aviation. In this lesson, learn why Glenn Curtiss left such a legacy in each of these areas.

Who Was Glenn Curtiss?

Some people are thrill-seekers by nature. They get joy by doing things that would terrify most people. Glenn Curtiss brings the idea of a thrill-seeker to the next level. He pushed the boundaries of what was known and possible to the world in which he lived. As you read, see how his story unfolds and how his many achievements built upon one another.

Glenn Curtiss was born on May 21, 1878 in Hammondsport, New York. Curtiss' childhood was not an easy one. His parents died when he was young, so Curtiss was raised by his grandmother. Curtiss had a difficult time in school and dropped out before completing high school to become a Western Union bicycle messenger. In that first job, bicycles were simply a tool to get a job done. However, Curtiss' entire livelihood and legacy would soon evolve from bicycles.

Motorsport Legacy

Curtiss on an early model of the motorcycle
Curtiss bike

After leaving Western Union, Curtiss opened his own bicycle shop and was a contestant in speed races. Curtiss' shop not only repaired bicycles; Curtiss also designed and created his own bikes. As cars became more and more popular during this time, Curtiss and many others wondered if it would be possible to bring powerful engines to bikes. Curtiss acted on this curiosity and created one of the original motorcycles by attaching a car engine to a bike! In 1902 Curtiss' company, G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company, began producing the Hercules motorcycle. These were the best motorcycles one could buy in the United States at the time.

In the following years, Curtiss continued to work on the creation of motorcycles with the goal of creating the fastest motorcycle. From 1903 to 1907, Curtiss set three speed records on his own motorcycles: he rode a mile in 56.4 seconds (1903, American Motorcycle Championship); he attained a 10-mile speed record (1904); and, his most impressive motorcycle legacy, he hit a of speed 136 miles per hour (1907). This final record stood for almost 25 years. These records earned Curtiss the nickname of ''fastest man in the world.''

Aircraft Legacy

The famous Jenny airplane produced by Curtiss. This was the aircraft used by the United States in World War I.

Curtiss pushed his motorcycles to the limit and continually worked to see what they could do. To Curtiss, it was essential to have a reliable engine. When moving at the high speeds he did, one small error in engine design could be fatal. This commitment to quality and his ingenuity led to a new line of work for Curtiss. In 1904, aviators began coming to Curtiss, looking to put his motorcycle engines onto their airplanes.

As aviation became more and more popular, Curtiss' focus shifted from motorcycles to planes. In 1907, Alexander Graham Bell asked Curtiss to join the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), the organization leading the development of airplanes. Curtiss quickly agreed to join the organization and continued to make landmark developments with the group.

In 1908, Curtiss set the record for the first publicly witnessed flight of over 1 kilometer when he flew the AEA June Bug. With this, Curtiss won the honor of having the first officially observed and recognized flight in the United States. Not only was Curtiss the famed pilot of the plane, but he also adjusted and perfected many features of the plane that made its flight successful.

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