Next year marks the centennial of flight-100 years since the December day in Kitty Hawk, NC, when the Wright brothers etched themselves so deeply into our collective consciousness. No doubt a good deal of hoopla will be whipped up about those two bicycle builders and their flight that changed America. But what the history books leave out is that the highly secretive Wright brothers refused to publicly demonstrate their airplane for four and a half years after that now legendary 12-second, 37-meter hop. By the time they revealed their machine, a number of other inventors already had airplanes flying.One of them was Glenn Hammond Curtiss, who in the spring of 1910 completed a 243-kilometer public flight along the Hudson River from Albany, NY, to Manhattan. Curtiss’s feat-the first true cross-country flight in the United States-was a technological tour de force. Not only was it by far the longest flight yet attempted in the United States, but it meant traveling over unpredictable terrain with virtually unknown wind and weather hazards-quite a different matter from the fair-weather demonstration laps around airfields that characterized most of the previous flights. Hundreds of thousands of people showed up to watch Curtiss’s flight, and the New York Times devoted no less than six full pages of text and photos to the occasion-the most space the newspaper had ever allotted a single news event.
Glenn Curtiss, largely forgotten today, teaches us an important lesson with implications far beyond aviation history about how technology evolves and how its development is remembered. We’re often obsessed with those, like the Wright brothers, who are first to cross a technological threshold. As important as those progenitors are, though, new technologies often take time to find their niches. Determining their ultimate uses-and their markets-is rarely an easy task. It can take daring to demonstrate a new capability that is well beyond the public’s imagination. It surely takes dedication, to persevere against the status quo. And it almost always takes vision.
Glenn Curtiss combined all these traits. He arguably did more to make the modern airplane a reality than anyone before or since. While his formal education ended at the eighth grade, Curtiss’s mechanical genius resulted in some 500 groundbreaking innovations, including many features still incorporated in airplanes today-from wing flaps to retractable landing gear. (By contrast, none of the Wrights’ aeronautical designs have stood the test of time. Most were obsolete by as early as 1912.) But Curtiss’s contributions weren’t limited to mechanical insights.
By 1910, many flights had already taken place in the United States and in Europe. The year 1909 marked Louis Blriot’s astonishing 39.5-kilometer flight across the English Channel and the world’s first international air meet, where nearly a dozen airplane designs were on display, and the grand prize was offered for a 20-kilometer flight-twice around a huge, specially designed course marked by pylons several stories tall.
In the United States, Curtiss had been working closely with a team called the Aerial Experiment Association that included Alexander Graham Bell, and on July 4, 1908, he had unveiled his June Bug airplane. It made the premiere public flight in America, winning Scientific American’s coveted prize for the first airplane in the United States to fly a measured kilometer before judges. Later that summer, with all the activity at home and abroad, the Wrights were finally goaded into demonstrating their airplane: Wilbur showed it off to great acclaim in Europe, and Orville demonstrated it to the U.S. military at Fort Myer in Virginia, where it crashed with an army lieutenant on board in the world’s first aviation fatality. But despite a growing number of exhibitions before paying spectators, the airplane, like many emerging technologies, was slow to find its place as much more than an exciting novelty.
All that changed with Curtiss’s 1910 flight. More than any other, that event launched the United States into the age of modern flight, much as Louis Paulhan’s similar 1910 flight from London to Manchester did Europe. These two dramatic journeys on either side of the Atlantic cleared the path for the development of airmail and modern air travel, as well as the terrible prospect of air power in war.
Near dawn on May 29, 1910, in a field on Rensselaer Island on the outskirts of Albany, NY, Curtiss donned his flying outfit in a makeshift tent. When he stepped out, he was in a pair of fisherman’s rubberized waders that came up to his armpits, a cork life jacket, a snug-fitting cap and a pair of goggles. The waders, Curtiss later explained, were not intended so much for the prospect of a water landing as to provide warmth. After all, despite the clear spring day, Curtiss would be flying in the open, several hundred meters in the air, at a speed of roughly 80 kilometers per hour.