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Better than Wright — Curtiss

1 June 2012

Better than Wright — Curtiss

These exhibits are on display at the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall and wonderfully represent so much of early aircraft development in the Unites States developed by Glenn Curtiss — the man who selflessly promoted aviation, paid his pilots above minimum wage, matured the concept of the flying boat including invention of the stepped hull and made aviation practical in the U.S. Though not intending to be a spoiler — none of which can be said of the Wright Brothers. Apologies if that upsets a comfortable paradigm but it is simply a matter of history, as has been addressed in previous posts on this blog.

Curtiss began as a mechanic and was soon making lightweight engines. One of these was an eight cylinder V-twin he mounted onto a motorcycle frame which set a land speed record on Daytona Beach.  Glenn Curtiss wanted to sell an engine to the Wright Brothers for their first powered aircraft but the Wrights did not accept. They instead used an engine of less power and increased weight though it had an aluminum block.

Glenn Curtiss's 8 cylinder world record setting speed motorcycle — photo by Joseph May

Curtiss soon became associated with the Aerial Experiment Organization (AER), a collegial research group which was beneficial in nature by developing ways to fly and without ownership of what they discovered — as was the custom of the time until the Wright’s came along, but that change was inevitable. Glenn Curtiss flew the AER June Bug to the winning of the first aeronautical prize ever offered, the Scientific American Cup, by flying a course distance exceeding 1km. The Wrights had been offered a chance to try the first attempt but they declined as they were wrapped up with the U.S. Army. They would have also been required to place wheels on their Flyer as well as dispense with the catapult launch they favored at the time.

Model of the Aerial Experiment Organization AER June Bug, first aircraft to win the Scientific American Cup — photo by Joseph May

As the Wrights had done well with regard to landing contracts with the U.S. Army. Glenn Curtiss then, naturally, sought business with the U.S. Navy to avoid direct competition with the Wright Brothers. This led Curtiss to develop the flying boat, which he first called a hydroaeroplane.

Model of the Hydroaeroplane, Curtiss's first waterborne aircraft design — photo by Joseph May

Later, Curtiss significantly refined the flying boat generic design with the twin tractor aircraft. It was this design that was the world’s first to blend the hull into the fuselage. This design, as shown in the model below, is where Curtiss decided to employ modern boat hull technology. He observed that the aircraft could benefit from placing a “step” — a dramatic and discontinuous change in the hull configuration — aft of the center of gravity — and the world has never looked back. Incorporating steps, larger flying boats had two or more, essentially gave the flying boat different hulls at different speeds making taking off possible with immensely shortened hull lengths, weights and required power. A stepped hull also allows a flying boat to rotate at a lower airspeed which increases the angle of attack and lift, just as a land based aircraft does, reducing take off distance substantially.

Model of the Twin Tractor Flying Boat prototype, two propellers powered by one engine and prior to the development of the stepped hull design — photo by Joseph May

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Rick Young permalink
    1 June 2012 10:42

    What a load of nonsense. The Wrights built their amazing motor in 1903 long before Curtiss had ever contacted them. Learn some actual history before passing on more utter foolishness. Nearly every statement you make about the Wrights is wrong. Wilbur established the truth about Curtiss on Governor’s Island in 1909.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      1 June 2012 11:03

      I appreciate your concerns but please place “Wright” into the search window to find more academic references to this subject, there are several and all documented work by professionals in the field. So I cannot accept your judgement regarding the foolishness of my material.

      I take care to not take away from what the Wrights accomplished. Curtiss offered his engine to them when they were working toward powered flight but they decided to use their heavier and less powerful engine instead — that was my point — of course the Wrights had an engine otherwise their would have been no choice for them to make. The Curtiss engine used technology with the cylinders and pistons which was new to the reciprocating world. Their engine was less powerful while the Curtiss engine was world reknowned, to state it another way. The Wright Flyer required a catalpult whereas the Curtiss aircraft never did. Nothing foolish about the analysis there, either.

      The Wrights stood upon the shoulders of others and flew under power and control first albeit their aircraft could not get to flight speed without the assistance of a catapult. Then they claimed all rights to powered flight in the court system with the unfortunate side effect of nearly paralyzing aviation development in the U.S. It was Curtiss with the legal aid of Henry Ford who progressed aviation in the U.S. and that is my point though I may have been unclear since you did not seize upon that aspect of my post. It is all a matter of history and that is what I illustrated.

      I am intrigued by the reference you provided and will try to find it. Thanks for it — but am I looking for a court statement, or a speech or a news article?

  2. 8 March 2017 02:13

    I believe the Wright brothers tried to sue Glenn Curtiss over his use of the moveable wingtip which they had copyrighted.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      8 March 2017 04:47

      You are correct. Curtiss went to ailerons but the lawsuit persisted as the Wrights felt they owned the process of controlled powered flight. Many aviation pioneers outside the U.S. couldn’t fly their aircraft in the U.S. because of it. The case lasted a long time, back in the day the Wright’s were joked about having invented flying due to their extremely generous patent, Henry Ford stepped in on the side of Glenn Curtiss–it all ended when the Federal government stopped the case, forcing a merger of the two companies. One result was the U.S. entered WW I with aircraft far behind technologically except for Curtiss’s seaplanes which were far ahead of others.

      One of the other books, aside from this one, you might like reading is “Hero of the Air”–both reviewed here. I hoped you liked this post “Better than Wright–Curtiss” for a little fun in upsetting incorrect paradigms–it generated much in the way of hateful emails though everything written is true and I didn’t bash the Wright brothers. The WRight Story also goes into aerodynamics and explaining just what the Wrights were pioneering, an aspect I had not read of before. The Wrights do not get enough credit for inventing propellers as we know them, as well as aerodynamic engineering with practices used today. Glenn Curtiss was extraordinary as an inventor as well as taking an idea and running with it–many devices used today began with him. Hero of the Air is a lovely book and explains Glenn Curtiss’s history quite nicely.

  3. 9 March 2017 19:21

    Glenn Curtis built his first engine about 1902. I was watching American Pickers one night, when Mike Wolfe stumbled across a 1903 Curtiss V2 engine. It looked to be in rough shape, but definitely restorable. IMHO, Curtiss built a better engine than the Wrights; however, the difference is academic now, more than a century later. Both ran and did the job they were designed for.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      9 March 2017 22:31

      The bottom line is they did accomplish the intended–I agree. I read where Curtiss, at that time an engine maker and world speed motorcycle record holder, offered an engine of his to the Wrights (as he did a lighter-than-air pilot who’s name I cannot recall but who took him up on the offer) and they turned him down leaving him to go his own way. The Wrights gave up a lighter more powerful engine than theirs and left Curtiss to go his own way which worked out well in the long run for aviation in general.

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