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Where is the Glenn Curtiss of today?


Replica of Curtiss' 1914 "America", designed for trans-Atlantic flight

On the weekend I toured the Glenn Curtiss museum in Hammondsport, New York. Who was Glenn Curtiss, you ask? Well, I didn’t know either. But now I feel I should have known.

Glenn Curtis was of the country’s aviation pioneers and a founder of the aircraft industry. Our history of flight is so focused on the Wright brothers that we can easily overlook that it took a number of key figures (both here and abroad) to establish flying aircraft.

After starting in a bicycle shop, Curtiss moved on in 1901 (age 23) to building, and racing, motorcycles. He was manufacturing aircraft engines as early as 1906. He made the first officially witnessed flight in the US, won the world's first international air meet in France, and made the US’s first long-distance flight.

Curtiss’ imagination and passion to succeed in developing man-made flight comes through in the museum’s exhibits. It contains many originals and faithful replicas of his various machines, and you can track his –and the industry’s - progress. I was intrigued how Curtiss was such a key figure in developing the technology even though he had no formal training in higher education. More to the point, it made me wonder, where are our equivalents of Glenn Curtiss today, developing entire new industries?

Glenn Curtiss

Curtiss started to manufacture for the US military before the First World War, and continued in the interwar period. Although he was involved in an acrimonious patent dispute with the Wrights, their companies merged to form Curtiss-Wright in 1929. Curtiss died of complications from appendicitis a year later, at a young 52.  

Curtiss-Wright after Curtiss’ passing is an interesting story too. The firm was the leading recipient of military contracts before and during the Second World War. It became a giant: after the war it was the largest aircraft manufacturer, and the second-largest firm in the country, after General Motors. Yet it scrimped on R&D and paid a big price (and thus provides a salutory lesson for today's penny-pinchers). Curtiss-Wright was soon surpassed by Northrop and others that developed jet engines, and fell fast. Today Curtiss-Wright is a $1.8B revenue company focusing on specialty engineered products.

Curtiss was also involved in one of history’s ironies. The USS Curtiss, named after him, was bombed by the Japanese while at Pearl Harbor in 1941. The bombs dropped were Nakajima B5N torpedoes, made by the leading supplier, the Nakajima Aircraft Company. That firm was founded by Chikuhei Nakajima, who, in 1912, had gone to Hammondsport to train under Curtiss to become a pilot and learn about manufacturing planes.

The museum is low-key but, like Curtiss’ inventions, well-constructed. Best of all, it stirs the imagination and makes you hungry for innovation.

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