Who Was Glenn Curtiss?

A bicycle and motorcycle racer, engine expert, aviation pioneer, and overall early engineering wiz, Glenn Curtiss was the embodiment of creative genius and growth mindset. He never let his inability to accomplish a project stop him from reaching towards his goals, and that determination is what led him to becoming The Fastest Man on Earth, The Father of Naval Aviation, and changing the world of aviation. 

Read more about Curtiss and his impact on the world below!

Glenn Curtiss: Early Life

Glenn Hammond Curtiss was born on May 21, 1878 in Hammondsport, NY. Both his father and his grandfather died when he was 4 years old, so Glenn and his younger sister, Rutha, were raised by their mother and grandmother.

From a very young age, Glenn was fascinated with learning about how things worked. He would often walk around town with a screwdriver, offering to fix squeaky doors or broken door bells.

Family Relationships

Rutha Curtiss

Born in 1881, Rutha was Glenn’s younger sister. Glenn was always very protective of Rutha. When she was 6 years old, she fell victim to meningitis, and although she recovered, she lost her hearing in the process. Glenn helped her learn finger-spelling and lip-reading.


Lua Andrews Curtiss

Lua was Glenn and Rutha’s mother. After his father and grandfather died when he was four years old, Lua and Glenn’s grandmother raised he and his sister. Lua was and amateur artist and musician and was known to be very outgoing and social. On April 1, 1895 his mother married Charles Adams, and in 1897, Lua gave birth to Glenn’s half-brother, George Carl Adams.

Ruth Bramble Curtiss

Ruth was Glenn’s grandmother. After her husband and son both died within months of each other in 1882, she helped raise her grandchildren with their mother, Lua. She owned a vineyard in Hammondsport, and Glenn would often help her with various duties, even riding his bike all the way from Rochester to Hammondsport to help out. Known to be hardworking and practical, Ruth and Glenn were especially close. She would encourage Glenn with all his ideas and they would often read together.

Move to Rochester

When Glenn was in the 8th grade, Lua moved her small family to Rochester, New York, so Rutha could attend the Western New York Institute for Deaf Mutes. Instead of continuing his education in Rochester, Glenn worked to help support his family.

Glenn’s first job was at the Eastman Dry Plate and Film company, earning $4.00 per week. His early interest in mechanics and inventions came back into play when he invented a stencil machine that was used at the plant and later built a simple camera to study photography.

Later, Glenn bought a bicycle and started delivering telegrams for the Western Union.

What is the Western Union?

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, young boys made money by delivering messages on their bikes for different companies. They would sometimes work for over 12 hours a day, from early in the morning until late at night.


Around the time Glenn moved to Rochester bicycles became a national phenomenon. While working for the Western Union, Glenn and his fellow messenger boys would hold impromptu races during their off-duty hours wherever they could find a stretch of asphalt. During these races, Glenn found his love for speed that would follow him throughout the rest of his life.

It was around this time Glenn began to ride his bike back to visit his grandmother who still lived in Hammondsport. During his races and his trips back and forth to Hammondsport, Glenn became interested in the mechanics of bicycles, often needing to fix it or tinkering with it to try to make it go faster.

Glenn would often ride his bike from Rochester to Hammondsport to help his grandmother in her vineyard. Below is a map of the route Glenn might have take and an estimation of how long the trip would take using different methods of transportation.

By Car
1 hour 30 minutes

By Bicycle
6 hours 26 minutes

By Foot
21 hours 23 minutes

The Hammondsport Boys 

The owner of the local pharmacy in Hammondsport, James H. Smellie, entered the bicycle business and organized a local racing team known as the “Hammondsport Boys.” Smellie recognized Glenn’s racing talent and arranged a 5-mile race to show everyone what Glenn was capable of. Glenn won with ease, with Smellie bragging that, “Glenn was home eating his dinner when the rest of the crowd came in.”

Glenn moved back to Hammondsport in 1897, and he became the top racing champion in the area.

Marriage to Lena Neff

Glenn was 20 years old when he met Lena Pearl Neff. She was quiet and hardworking like him, and also enjoyed hiking and cycling. After their marriage in 1898, they moved into Glenn’s grandmother’s home. Glenn worked at Smellie’s bicycle shop and as a travelling photographer, and made money doing other odd jobs, winning bicycle races, raising rabbits, and helping in his grandmother’s vineyard.

Bicycle Business

While working in the local bicycle shop, Glenn’s interest in bicycle mechanics worked in his favor. He would often fix other’s broken bicycles.

In 1898, he opened his own bicycle shop in the village square in Hammondsport. He soon began to sketch out his own ideas for a bicycle, and worked with a machine shop in Addison, NY to make it a reality. Glenn eventually opened up another bicycle shop in Bath, NY. The Curtiss Bicycle Shops were a great success, but soon a new machine would steal his focus.

Glenn Curtiss: Motorcycles and Engines

By 1899 at 21 years old, Glenn Curtiss was a champion bicycle racer, a newlywed, and a successful business owner. His bicycle shops were doing well, and he had his own brand of bicycles known as The Hercules.

However, a new machine quickly gained his attention. With the help of his wife’s uncle, Glenn Curtiss began experimenting with his own motorcycle designs. His first engine wasn’t powerful enough. His second engine was too powerful and too heavy.

He kept experimenting until he created a successful motorcycle with a lightweight and powerful engine.

Glenn’s determination to create the best motorcycle and engine lead him to more experimenting and success. He developed a motorcycle under The Hercules brand, and he competed in a race in Brooklyn, NY in 1902. He won third place and began receiving calls from all over the world from people who wanted to purchase his engines and motorcycles including California, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa! 

He continued to work towards his goal of creating an engine that was light-weight, but powerful, so he could produce an incredibly fast motorcycle.

A Growing Business

In 1902, Glenn and Lena had a son named Carlton. Carlton was born with a heart condition and died when he was only 11 months old. Lena and Glenn were heartbroken, and both threw themselves into the business to distract themselves from their grief.  Because of the increased production at the Curtiss shop in downtown Hammondsport, Lena took over the office routine. She went in daily, handling the bookkeeping, the mail and anything else that needed to be done.

Glenn began manufacturing his own engines at Taggart’s Mill which was located halfway between Hammondsport and Bath. His engines were growing in popularity and demand, so he built a new factory building next to his home on Castle Hill in Hammondsport. As business grew, a second building was added on in 1905 and a third in 1906.

Glenn was known to be easy to talk to and open to suggestions and ideas. He would often be found dirtying his hands alongside his workers. Most importantly, he was always thinking and experimenting. This can be shown with his development of a handle bar throttle and eventually the V-8 engine.

Captain Thomas Baldwin

Captain Thomas Baldwin was one of the most well-known people in the field of aeronautics. He travelled with circuses performing with a hot air balloon. He was known for doing crazy stunts like walking on a tight wire 70 feet above the air over the raging ocean surf in San Francisco. In 1894, he began to develop plans for a balloon powered by an engine. The main problem became across in his planning was finding an engine that was powerful but light enough that it wouldn’t drag down his balloon.

In 1903, Captain Baldwin ordered a two-cylinder engine from a G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company catalog and used this engine in his latest dirigible the California Arrow. This was the first American dirigible competing in Oakland, California and in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904 and in Portland, Oregon in 1905.

In 1905, Captain Baldwin contacted Glenn and asked him to develop a more powerful engine for his dirigibles. Glenn was not interested in flight, but he realized they both wanted the same thing: lightweight but powerful engines. Glenn developed the first ever four cylinder engine which had a distinct “V” shape.  Captain Baldwin decided to move his shop from San Francisco to Hammondsport to be closer to Glenn while he developed a new engine for his balloons.

With the arrival of Captain Baldwin, the small rural village of Hammondsport would never be the same. It was soon to be in the center of American aviation.

The First Aeronautical Exhibition 

In January of 1906, Glenn attended the annual Automotive Show, where he featured the engines he manufactured for aeronautical use. It was at this show that Glenn met Dr. Alexander Graham Bell for the first time. After meeting Glenn, Dr. Bell ordered one of Glenn’s engines.


Dr. Alexander Graham Bell

Dr. Alexander Graham Bell was a Scottish-born scientist, inventor, engineer, and innovator who is credited with patenting the first practical telephone and founding the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1885.

The New California Arrow

 On June 28, 1907, in Hammondsport, Glenn had his first experience with flight. After working with Captain Baldwin for over two years and watching each new dirigible take off, he finally gave in to his temptation and went up in the air.

After this initial flight, Glenn had a whole new view of what was possible and new ways to experiment.

The Fastest Man on Earth

In January of 1907, Glenn travelled to Ormond Beach, Florida, with some of his motorcycles to participate in the official time trials being conducted there. His newest cycle, with a V-8 engine, was not allowed to be entered into any of the races because it was not a standard motorcycle, but the officials did agree to let him go on the course to get an official time.

It took Glenn two miles to get up to speed, and one mile to set his time. He went 136.4 miles per hour in 26.25 seconds! It took him one full mile to slow down enough to get off his motorcycle.

With this, Glenn shattered the world speed record, becoming the FASTEST MAN ON EARTH! A title he held until 1911 when it was beat by an automobile, but it wasn’t until 1930 that it was broken by another motorcycle.

Dr. Bell had learned of Glenn’s trip to Florida and asked him to stop by his home in Washington. There, they would talk of the future and discuss important business matters…

An Ending and a New Beginning

Between 1904-1909, The G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company had moved away from motorcycles to focus solely on aviation. The era of motorcycle development had been ushered in by Glenn. His engines and machines were some of the first to be mass produced. His natural mechanic ability and inventive spirit pushed him to the forefront of aeronautics. 

Glenn Curtiss: Aviation Pioneer

Aerial Experiment Association

The Aerial Experiment Association, or the AEA, was a group started by Alexander Graham Bell. It consisted of a group of men who were focused on creating a “heavier than air” flying machine and getting a man into the air. Glenn joined this group in 1907. He worked with Canadian engineers F.W. “Casey” Baldwin and J.A.D. McCurdy, and U.S. Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge to create aircraft.

The AEA produced several biplanes that were powered by Curtiss engines and each member acted as the lead designer for at least one of the aircrafts. According to Bell, the AEA was created, “not for gain, but for the love of the art and doing what we can to help one another.” The AEA ran from September 30, 1907 to March 31, 1909.

Red Wing

The Red Wing, or Aerodrome #1, was designed by Lt. Thomas Selfridge and built in 1908. The plane was outfitted with a Curtiss 40-horsepower, 175 pound, air-cooled V8 engine. It was named the Red Wing for the bright red color of its silk wings.

On March 12, 1908, Casey Baldwin flew the aircraft off frozen Keuka Lake. This was the first public demonstration of a powered aircraft flight in the US as well as the first flight by a Canadian pilot. Unfortunately, the tail fell off 20 seconds after takeoff, leading the plane to crash. It was beyond repair, so they started building a new plane.

White Wing

The White Wing, or Aerodrome #2, was designed by Baldwin and built in 1908. This was the first plane the AEA equipped with ailerons, which allowed the pilot to better control the direction the plane would fly.

The plane was first piloted by Baldwin on May 18,1908, and then flown by Lt. Thomas Selfridge, who became the first Army officer to fly an aircraft. Curtiss then flew the plane on May 21,1908. Two days later, John McCurdy and the plane crashed during a landing and was damaged beyond repair.

What is an aileron?

An aileron is a hinged surface on the edge of an airplane wing. It helps the pilot control the airplane in the air.

The June Bug

The June Bug, or Aerodrome #3, was designed by Curtiss and built by the AEA in 1908. The June Bug had the same aileron steering system that was used in the White Wing.

On July 4, 1908, Curtiss flew the June Bug in Hammondsport at Stony Brook Farm during a competition known as the Scientific American Cup. He flew 5,090 feet with over 1,000 people watching.

This flight of the June Bug was the first officially-recognized, pre-announced and
publicly-observed flight in America. The AEA won the competition. The flight had been
recorded and was shown in movie theaters all around the world. Curtiss became one of America’s leading aviation pioneers.

Silver Dart

The Silver Dart, or Aerodrome # 4, was designed by J.A.D. McCurdy. It used Glenn’s very first water cooled engine, and most of the work was done by Glenn and J.A.D. McCurdy.

It first flew at Stony Brook Farm in Hammondsport on December 6, 1908. Later, it was shipped to Novia Scotia, Canada. On February 23, 1909, it flew for the first time in Canada. This was the first flight of a heavier-than-air-machine in Canadian history. 


Curtiss’ work designing the June Bug led to his fascination with the idea of creating an aircraft that could land on, and take off from, the water. In November of 1908, after the successful flight of the June Bug for the Scientific American Cup, Curtiss and the AEA quickly began modifying the June Bug trying to create a seaplane. He strapped pontoons to the bottom of the plane in attempts to get it to float and renamed it The Loon.

The Loon never became airborne. They could not make the machine go fast enough to be able to take off from the water. The AEA convinced Curtiss to focus on their other projects and leave his seaplane ideas behind.

The Experimental Years

After the AEA ended in 1909, Curtiss revisited his seaplane ideas.  Taking what he had learned from the Loon, Curtiss began experimenting with different types of seaplanes. He did this from 1910-1912, both in Hammondsport and in California. He focused on creating planes that could be used for the military. He worked closely with the Army and the Navy during this time so he could make sure the planes would be something the military could use.

A-1 Triad

The Triad was developed in the winter of 1911. It was successfully demonstrated on February 25th, 1911 in San Diego, California for the Army and Navy. Between 1911-1914, the Navy bought 14 different versions of The Triad. Curtiss opened flying schools in California and Florida to teach the first Naval pilots how to fly. Curtiss became known as the “Father of Naval Aviation.”

JN-4D “Jenny”

The JN-4D, or the Jenny, was one of the most important planes in early aviation. It was designed as a military training plane for pilots during World War I. It is estimated that over 95% of American and Canadian pilots learned how to fly a Jenny.

Though it was important during the war, it wasn’t until after the war that the Jenny made a name for itself. When the war ended, the government had thousands of Jennies that it didn’t know what to do with, and there were pilots from the war that discovered they had a passion for flying. So, the government began selling these planes to the public. The pilots bought them and opened private airports, flying schools, and mail delivery services. The biggest business that resulted from the Jenny was a type of performance called Barnstorming.

Barnstorming was a type of stunt flying. Groups of pilots would go around the country and put on spectacular and dangerous performances. They would perform stunts like playing tennis on the wings or they would walk on the top of the plane, from one side of the wing to the other. While the Barnstormers’ main focus was entertaining, they also kept aviation popular. These performances were often the audience’s first experience with aviation, so it led people to flying schools to learn how to fly. It also made the government and aviation businesses to think more about flight safety.

Curtiss Flying Schools

With aviation fascinating America, Curtiss often found himself being asked to teach flying. So Curtiss used the flat, open piece of land on the south end of Keuka Lake, known as Kingsley Flats, to start his flying school. This land was, after all, the same land that had been used for Captain Baldwin’s dirigible experiments. It was the ideal spot for a flying field. This school ran from 1910-1916.

Not only were individuals from America coming to learn how to fly from Curtiss, but also people from foreign countries. Curtiss taught people from all around the world, including China, Japan, Cuba, Holland, India and Puerto Rico!

Curtiss also opened schools in San Diego, California; Miami, Florida; Newport News, Virginia and Toronto, Canada.

Glenn Curtiss: Later Life

Move to Florida

After 13 years of success in the aviation business, Glenn decided to move his life in a different direction. In September of 1920, Glenn retired from aviation and moved to Florida.

He was already familiar with Florida. He had raced there in 1907, becoming the “Fastest Man on Earth.” He also had a flying school in Miami. So, when he permanently moved there in 1920, Glenn realized that there was a lot of land that could be developed into cities. During his time there, he helped establish the cities of Miami Springs, Opa-Locka, and Hialeah.

He built his home in Miami Springs, enjoyed time with his family, built an airport and a hotel and became a prominent member of his community.


In 1919, Glenn’s half-brother, G. Carl Adams, formed the Adams Trailer Corporation. Together, they began producing several of their ideas under the name, Motor Bungalow. He later developed the 5th Wheel trailer hitch, which helped with the rough ride and poor performance of their original design.

The Adams Trailer Corporation stopped production in 1922, but Glenn decided to continue designing and created the Aerocar while he was in Florida. These luxury trailers were made in Long Island and Hammondsport, NY. By the mid-1930s, the Curtiss Aerocar Trailers were being sold for about $5,000, so they were not affordable for the average family. This, along with the Great Depression, caused the company to decide to stop producing the trailers.

Though the product was not as successful as they had wished, it did lead the way for the traveling trailers, campers and RV’s that we know today!


One reason why Glenn enjoyed living in Florida was the different sporting opportunities it had to offer. He had always loved being outdoors and he was an accomplished archer, rifleman, and shotgunner. He enjoyed hunting for bobcat, turkey and even occasionally caught alligators in the Florida swamps!

He loved playing archery golf. Archery golf was played on a regular golf course substituting golf clubs and golf balls for a bow and arrow. The golfers would aim for coconuts they had put over the different holes throughout the golf course. Over the years, Glenn created and entered many archery golf competitions, taking home many trophies.


Glenn Curtiss’ amazing life came to an end in July, 1930 at the age of 52 years old. He was on his way to Rochester, NY, when he had to be rushed to a hospital in Buffalo for emergency surgery for appendicitis. He passed away two days later on July 23, 1930 due to a blood clot from the surgery. Though he had lived in Florida for 10 years.

Hammondsport was his home, so he was buried in Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Hammondsport, not far from where he took off in his June Bug aircraft in 1908.

Glenn’s name was posthumously added to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in the air racing category.  He was also posthumously inducted into the National

Inventors Hall of Fame where his memorial reads: “Glenn Curtiss is considered the most influential man in the evolution of aviation. His keen insight into aeronautics and aviation, despite having no formal education past eighth grade, affirms his genius.”

The Wright Brothers

Though Curtiss and the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, had a lot in common and were working in aviation at the same time, they had never gotten along. The Wright brothers had flown for the first time in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, five years before the flight of the June Bug in 1908. Instead of showing the world their flying machines, the Wright brothers decided to keep their inventions a secret so no one could steal their ideas. Though word did get out that they had flown, not everybody believed them because they refused to prove it.

When the AEA was formed, Glenn wrote to the Wright brothers asking for advice on how to build an airplane, but the Wright brothers declined to help them. With the
success of the AEA and Curtiss’ flight of the June Bug and the creation of Glenn’s new aviation company, the Wright brothers decided to sue Glenn. Multiple court battles between Curtiss and the Wright brothers went on for years.

Glenn and the Wright brothers did not get along, but bad feelings only increased when Lt. Thomas Selfridge, a member of the AEA and close friend to Glenn, died in September of 1908. He was a passenger in an aircraft flown by Orville Wright. There was an accident and he passed away from his injuries. Glenn blamed the Wright brothers for the death of his friend. Then, in 1912, Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever and Orville blamed all the stress Glenn had caused them over the years for his brother’s death.

Legal battles between Glenn and the Wrights were still going on at the start of WWI, when the need for planes caused the government to step in and stop their fighting.

In 1928, after Glenn and Orville Wright were no longer involved with their companies, they combined to form the Curtiss-Wright Company, which created planes like the P-40 Warhawk and the C-46 Commando. This company still exists today!

Mercury Corporation

In 1921, two former Curtiss employees formed the Aerial Service Corporation. In the beginning, it was a small company that provided parts to barnstormers for the Jennys, but soon they started designing and building their own aircraft.

In 1924, Joseph F. Meade, Sr. came to Hammondsport after working at the Curtiss factory in Garden City, Long Island. He began working as the general manager at the Aerial Service Corporation. By 1931, the company was renamed Mercury Aircraft, with Meade and H.C. Mummert becoming the President and Vice President of the Company.

For over 85 years, Mercury has been a strong part of aviation and local history. The company worked closely with U.S. Air Force in the 1930’s, assisted with the production of the P-40 during WWII, and during the 1950’s moved away from aviation, producing school buses, telephone booths, truck bodies, and barbecue grills. They did eventually get back into aviation and expanded into metal fabrication.

In 1976, Mercury built the June Bug II, an exact flying replica of the 1908 June Bug, which is currently on display in the Curtiss Museum.

The Mercury Corporation still exists today and their main headquarters is located on the same land where Curtiss took his historic flight of the June Bug in 1908!

Curtiss Legacy

A man named Otto Kohl, who was a former employee of Curtiss’ and a resident of Hammondsport, decided that a museum needed to be opened up to honor the life of Glenn Curtiss. He set out to find a building and objects to display, and in 1961, the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum opened in downtown Hammondsport.

As the museum grew, the space became too small to hold the collection. In fact, they didn’t even have the space to have the wings on the airplanes! So, in 1992, the museum moved to its current location, where thousands of visitors have learned all about Glenn Curtiss’ accomplishments.

Today, the museum works hard to continue teaching people about Curtiss, but also inspiring students to work towards their goals and think outside the box– just like Glenn Curtiss!