Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, July 19, 2019

Glenn Curtiss and the First World War

Glenn Curtiss

During WWI, the Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company, formed in 1916, became the world's largest producer of aircraft. Glenn Curtiss' organizations produced 10,000 aircraft during the war and more than 100 in a single week.

Like his main competitors the Wright brothers, Glenn Curtiss had been  involved in bicycling before he became interested in aviation, first racing bicycles and, later, motorcycles. Curtiss developed a successful motorcycle business in Hammondsport, NY, for which he designed and built relatively light and efficient engines. In 1904 famed balloonist Thomas Scott Baldwin asked Curtiss to build him a dirigible engine. The success of this engine brought more orders and greater awareness of his talent.

Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" with 90 HP OX-5 Engine

In 1907 Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, organized the Aerial Experiment Association and asked Curtiss to join as the director of experiments. In May 1908 Curtiss took his first airplane flight in the White Wing, an aircraft designed by Casey Baldwin. (Lt. Thomas Selfridge also flew it, thereby becoming the first military person to fly an airplane.)

A month later Curtiss flew an airplane of his own design, the June Bug. Curtiss built on the success of his first airplane by demonstrating it (and follow-on designs) before large crowds, earning large cash prizes and winning several awards—including the Scientific American Trophy three years in a row, the Gold Medal of the Aero Club, the Gordon Bennett Trophy, the Langley Medal, and the Collier Trophy.

Curtiss was also a significant pioneer of naval aviation, effectively inventing the flying boat and designing successful ship-borne military planes that established the operational concept of the aircraft carrier. Much of this work was carried out at North Island, Coronado, CA, well before the entry of the U.S. into the war.

Curtiss Began Delivering the N-9 Floatplane to the Navy
Just as America Entered the War

Curtiss sold his first military airplane, the Model D Type IV, to the Signal Corps in April 1911, and continued to build more powerful engines and new airplanes for the military. Of particular note was Curtiss' development of the flying boat, the JN-4 trainer (the most widely used U.S. aircraft of World War I), and the OX-5 engine used in the JN-4 and other aircraft. 

Shortly after the end of WWI, Curtiss left the aviation business, dying from appendicitis complications  in 1930 at the age of 52. Ironically, although he and the Wrights fought a bitter patent struggle between 1909 and 1917, the companies they founded merged in 1929 to become the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Company.

Sources: USAF National Museum, U.S. Naval Aviation Museum; Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation. William F. Trimble. Naval Institute Press, 2010.


  1. The JN-4 Jenny in the photo has a 90HP OX-5 engine, not a 400 HP Liberty.

    1. Thank you Thuderbolt. I've confirmed you correction with the USAF National Museum and it has been made on the page.