A week ago we decided to write a short story about Glenn H. Curtiss and the development of the famous Curtiss water cooled engines of the early 1900’s. I have to admit that my knowledge about Curtiss and the development of the Curtiss series of engines was limited at best, although I was aware of some his his achievements as a pioneer in the aircraft industry, as well as his early motorcycle speed records. And of course we know that the Curtiss OX-5 V-8 was used by some of the early wooden boat manufacturers such as the Indian Lake Boat Company / Dart Boats in the 1920’s & 30’s.
However, what I didn’t realize (until last week) was just influential Glenn H. Curtiss was, not only as a pioneer in the early days of the aircraft industry, but the history of the man and his accomplishments – it’s truly remarkable. So remarkable in fact, that it’s impossible to even begin to describe his accomplishments in a short story. There is so much information that has already been documented on every aspect of his relatively short life (and over the last 130 years), that my attempts to learn more about Glenn Curtiss resulted in me getting lost on the Internet for hours and hours over the last week, as I learned more. It was almost like reading a good book that you just couldn’t put down.
So finally we thought the best way to keep the Glenn H. Curtiss story as short as possible was to simply publish a list of his accomplishments (thanks to our friends at Wikipedia), add a few links to some of the historical information, and fill in the blanks with a few vintage images.
Glenn Hammond Curtiss (May 21, 1878 – July 23, 1930) was an American aviation pioneer and a founder of the U.S. aircraft industry. At the south end of Lake Keuka, one of New York State’s Finger Lakes, sits the small village of Hammondsport. Settlers moved into the area by the 1790s, in 1829 Lazarus Hammond surveyed the area, and the village itself was incorporated in 1856. The village has long been one of many engaged in New York’s profitable wine-growing industry. These days, the village boasts a population of only a few hundred people. However, the village also can boast that on May 21st, 1878 it was the birthplace of one of aviation’s greatest visionaries, Glenn Hammond Curtiss. (excerpt from The Life and Times of Glenn Hammond Curtiss by David Langley)
He began his career as a bicycle builder, then a motorcycle builder and racer, later also manufacturing engines for airships as early as 1906. In 1908 Curtiss joined the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), a pioneering research group founded by Alexander Graham Bell at Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia to build flying machines.
In 1907 Curtiss rode the world’s first V-8 powered motorcycle to a land speed record of speed of 136 miles per hour in Ormond Beach, Florida. Having riden the motorcycle faster than even the typical locomotive of the day, he became known as “The Fastest Man on Earth.” That same year in June, he flew over Hammondsport, NY in a Thomas Baldwin dirigible powered by a Curtiss engine. This was the very first time that Curtiss went aloft in any sort of aircraft. After alighting from the craft, he was now so interested in human flight that he soon started planning how to make the dirigible fly faster.
Curtiss rose to fame by making the first officially witnessed flight in North America, winning a race at the world’s first international air meet in France, and making the first long-distance flight in the United States. His contributions in designing and building aircraft led to the formation of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, now part of Curtiss-Wright Corporation. His company built aircraft for the U.S. Army and Navy, and during the years leading up to World War I, his experiments with seaplanes led to advances in naval aviation. Curtiss civil and military aircraft were predominant in the inter-war and World War II eras.
Glenn H. Curtiss Timeline
Courtesy of Wikipedia – (click here for the full story)
– 1878 Birth in Hammondsport, New York
– 1898 Marriage
– 1900 Manufactures Hercules bicycles
– 1901 Motorcycle designer and racer
– 1903 American motorcycle champion
– 1903 Unofficial one-mile motorcycle land speed record 64 mph (103 km/h) on Hercules V8 at Yonkers, New York
– 1904 Thomas Scott Baldwin mounts Curtiss motorcycle engine on a hydrogen-filled dirigible
– 1904 Set 10-mile world speed record
– 1904 Invented handlebar throttle control; handlebar throttle control also credited to the 1867–1969 Roper steam velocipede
– 1905 Created G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company, Inc.
– 1906 Curtiss writes the Wright brothers offering them an aeronautical motor
– 1907 Curtiss joins Alexander Graham Bell in experimenting in aircraft
– 1907 Set world motorcycle land speed record of 77.6 mph (124.9 km/h)
– 1907 Set world motorcycle land speed record at 136.36 mph (219.45 km/h) in his V8 motorcycle in Ormond Beach, Florida
– 1908 First Army dirigible flight with Curtiss as flight engineer
– 1908 One of several claimants for the first flight of an aircraft controlled by ailerons
– 1908 Lead designer and pilot of “June Bug” on July 4
– 1909 Sale of Curtiss’s “Golden Flyer” to the New York Aeronautic Society for $5,000.00 USD, marks the first sale of any aircraft in the U.S., triggers Wright Brothers lawsuits.
– 1909 Won first international air speed record with 46.5 mph (74.8 km/h) in Rheims, France
– 1909 First U.S. licensed aircraft manufacturer.
– 1909 Established first flying school in United States and exhibition company
– 1910 Long distance flying record of 150 miles (240 km) from Albany, New York to New York City
– 1910 First simulated bombing runs from an aircraft at Lake Keuka, NY
– 1910 First firearm use from aircraft, piloted by Curtiss
– 1910 First radio communication with aircraft in flight in a Curtiss biplane
– 1910 Trained Blanche Stuart Scott, the first American female pilot
– 1910 First successful takeoff from a United States Navy ship (Eugene Burton Ely, using Curtiss Plane)
– 1911 First landing on a ship (Eugene Burton Ely, using Curtiss Plane) (2 Months later)
– 1911 Pilot license #1 issued for his “June Bug” flight
– 1911 Ailerons patented
– 1911 Developed first successful pontoon aircraft in U.S.
– 1911 Hydroplane A-1 Triad purchased by U.S. Navy (US Navy’s First aircraft)
– 1911 First dual pilot control in May
– 1911 Developed first retractable landing gear on his Hydroaeroplane
– 1911 His first aircraft sold to U.S. Army on April 27
– 1911 Created first military flying school
– 1912 Developed and flew the first flying boat on Lake Keuka, NY
– 1912 First ship catapult launching on October 12 (Lt. Ellyson)
– 1912 Created the first flying school in Florida at Miami Beach
– 1914 Start production run of “Jennys” and may other models including flying boats
– 1917 Opens “Experimental Airplane Factory” in Garden City, Long Island
– 1919 Curtiss NC-4 flying boat crosses the Atlantic
– 1919 Commenced private aircraft production with the Oriole
– 1921 Developed Hialeah, Florida including Hialeah Park Race Track
– 1921 Donated his World War I training field to the Navy
– 1923 Developed Miami Springs, Florida and created a flying school and airport
– 1923 (circa) Created first airboats
– 1925 Builds his Miami Springs mansion.
– 1926 Developed Opa-locka, Florida and airport facility
– 1928 Created the Curtiss Aerocar Company in Opa-locka, Florida.
– 1928 Curtiss towed an Aerocar from Miami to New York in 39 hours
– 1930 Death in Buffalo, New York
– 1930 Buried in Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Hammondsport, New York
– 1964 Inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame
– 1990 Inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in the air racing category
Throughout his life, Glenn Curtis designed a number of unique flying boats for the US Military. Here’s one of his earlier versions – the Curtiss MF Model, which was powered by a 90HP OX-5 V-8 similar in structural design and power of the JN-4 “Jenny” from around 1918.
In April 2010 this vintage 1917 Curtiss MF Seagull Flying Boat sold at auction in New York to an anonymous phone buyer for a reported 506,000.00 US. When Bonhams New York listed the unique piece, it was estimated to sell at between 300K to 500K.
The Curtiss OX-5 was an early V-8 American liquid-cooled aircraft engine built by Curtiss. It was the first US-designed engine to enter mass production, although it was considered obsolete when it did so in 1917. It nevertheless found widespread use on a number of aircraft, perhaps the most famous being the JN-4 “Jenny”. Some 12,600 units were built through early 1919. The wide availability of the engine in the surplus market made it common until the 1930s, although it was considered unreliable for most of its service life. Today the engine can be found powering many Edwardian automobile racing specials on the historic racing scene.
The OX-5 was the last in a series of Glenn Curtiss designed V engines, which had started as a series of air-cooled V-twins for motorcycles in 1902. A modified version of one of these early designs was sold as an aircraft engine in 1906, and from then on the company’s primary market was aircraft. The basic design had slowly expanded by adding additional cylinders until they reached the V-8 in 1906. They also started enlarging the cylinders as well, but this led to cooling problems that required the introduction of water cooling in 1908. These early engines used a flathead valve arrangement, which eventually gave way to a cross-flow cylinder with overhead valves in 1909, leading to improved volumetric efficiency. The US Navy ordered a version of this basic design in 1912 for its A-1 amphibious aircraft, which Curtiss supplied as the OX. These improvements and others were worked into what became the OX-5, which was first built in 1910. (The above information was originally produced by Wikipedia, to see more on the Curtis OX-5 story and full history click here.)
So by now you are probably thinking to yourself, what is the connection to Glenn Curtiss and Gar Wood in 1918 and what does all this have to do with wooden boats. Good question.
As the story goes, Gar Wood and Christopher Columbus Smith (of Chris-Craft fame) probably did more to refine the “step” hydroplane concept than anyone else. Wood and Smith collaborated on “MISS DETROIT III” in 1917. They were the first to try a lightweight aircraft engine adapted for marine use in a race boat. The engine in question was a 1650 cubic inch Model V-4 (V-12 Cylinder) Curtiss power plant. (The above is an excerpt from the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum, you can see the entire Gar Wood racing history on the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum website by clicking here)
In preparation for the 1918 Gold Cup race, Gar Wood wanted a better, faster boat. And the competition for the Gold Cup was growing.
He talked to several engineers about putting an aeroplane engine in a boat. Marine engines were heavy. Gar Wood wanted a light fast engine on the old theory of light weight per horsepower. The engineers were skeptical, advised against it. They thought it was the creation of a mad brain.
But Wood was stubborn. “If we want speed,” he said, “we’ve got to cut weight.”
Wood knew that Glen Curtiss, of the Curtiss Engine Company, had been using an aeroplane engine in his Miss Miami, a boat that had traveled fifty-five miles an hour with an air propeller. Curtiss had been given an order by the British Navy during the War to build a twelve-cylinder V-type engine of light weight and high power. He built several of these engines. They were all rejected by the British Navy and Curtiss had sustained a tremendous loss.
Commodore C. D. Cutting, a friend of Glen Curtiss, told Gar Wood he thought he could get one of those engines.
Wood said, “Fine. I’ll buy it if you can.” – Cutting got the engine for Wood. It was shipped to Wood’s plant in Detroit.
Through the entire winter Wood worked on it. Before he finished he had increased the propeller revolutions from 1,650 per minute to 2,000. He also decreased the engine weight from 1,320 pounds to 1,250 pounds. That was four hundred pounds less than the weight of the Sterling engines in his “Miss Detroit II.” Wood, satisfied, told the Smith boys to start work on a new hull.
They climbed into their overalls, rolled tip their sleeves and went to work. They’d done that before, many times. The thing they created was a masterpiece. The “Miss Detroit III” was made out of seven different kinds of wood, the finest speedboat ever shaped by human hands up to that time. It was built to ride entirely out of water from the bow back to the step. It was powered by the Model V-4 light weight Curtis V-12 cylinder engine.
Gar Wood went on to capture the 1918 Gold Cup with “Miss Detroit III”. (To see the entire story of Gar Wood’s successful effort to capture the 1918 Gold Cup which was re-printed from “Speedboat Kings” you can click here)
From 2000 to 2005 Mike Michaud from Maine built a beautiful replica of the historic “Miss Detroit III” Chris Smith / Gar Wood 1918 single step hydroplane. Below are a few photos of the boat which was completed and lauched in the summer of 2005. You can see the complete story od Mike and the replica project by clicking here, you go to the Vintage Raceboat Shop website.
The “Miss Detroit III” replica then came up for auction at the Warner Collection Auction in 2010. Long time hyrdoplane driver, team owner and enthusiast Dr. Ken Muskatel purchased the boat at the auction and returned it to the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum for display purposes. It was also shown at the 2011 Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance with the twin V-6 Chevrolet power that Mike Michaud installed.
Ken Muskatel is also the Past President of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum near Seattle, Washington and continues to support the museum. Ken’s guidance and contribution to the Museum is immeasurable.
Approximately 20 years ago, Ken Muscatel purchased one of the two remaining 1916 Curtiss Model V-4 engines known to exist from an antique car museum. The only other example known to exist is on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. With the help of fellow Woody Boater and hydroplane enthusiast Ike Kielgass, Ken is now in the final stages of restoring the ultra rare Curtis V-12 to be installed in the “Miss Detroit III” later this summer.
The engine restoration work was entrusted to Robert Mishko at Rocky Summit Performance in Tennessee. Here are a series of very interesting photos of the Curtiss V-4 restoration project from Mishko’s shop.
Robert Mishko commented when he began the rare Curtiss engine restoration how cool it was to think that he was the first person to open up this motor after almost 100 years had passed. And from the photo’s it appears to be in great shape for it’s age.
When I spoke to Ike last week he indicated that they were hoping to have the Curtiss V-4 completed later this summer and then get it installed in “Miss Detroit III” in time to water test it later this year. The boat may be used for some limited demonstrations in conjunction with a few Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum events, and then it will be displayed in the museum for everyone to enjoy and appreciate once again. You can also click here to visit the awesome Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum website.
Thanks to Dr. Ken Muskatel and Ike Kielgass for sharing this story with us, and we look forward to the day “Miss Detroit III” is completed with the big Curtiss V-12 power and back in the water. That may require a special bike ride to see and hear the re-launch.
Also, if you are ever in or traveling through the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, plan to stop by the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY. Here’s the link to thier website. Hammondsport, NY / Lake Kauka is where our friend and fellow Woody Boater Mike Mayer (from Lake Oswego Boat Co) is from, and his father – Legendary “Hank the Plank” still resides there at his boat shop.