Glenn Hammond Curtiss (May 21, 1878 – July 23, 1930) was an American aviation pioneer and a founder of the U.S. aircraft industry.
Glenn began his career as a bicycle racer and builder before moving on to motorcycles. As early as 1904, he began to manufacture engines for airships. 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.
Curtiss made the first officially witnessed flight in North America, won a race at the world’s first international air meet in France, and made 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.
Curtiss began his career as a Western Union bicycle messenger, a bicycle racer, and bicycle shop owner. In 1901 he developed an interest in motorcycles when internal combustion engines became more available. In 1902 Curtiss began manufacturing motorcycles with his own single-cylinder engines. His first motorcycle’s carburetor was adapted from a tomato soup can containing a gauze screen to pull the gasoline up via capillary action. In 1903 he set a motorcycle land speed record at 64 miles per hour (103 km/h) for one mile (1.6 km). When E.H. Corson of the Hendee Mfg Co (manufacturers of Indian motorcycles) visited Hammondsport in July 1904, he was amazed that the entire Curtiss motorcycle enterprise was located in the back room of the modest “shop”. Corson’s motorcycles had just been trounced the week before by “Hell Rider” Curtiss in an endurance race from New York to Cambridge, Maryland.
In 1907, Curtiss set an unofficial world record of 136.36 miles per hour (219.45 km/h), on a 40 horsepower (30 kW) 269 cu in (4,410 cc) V8-powered motorcycle of his own design and construction. The air-cooled F-head engine was intended for use in aircraft. He would remain “the fastest man in the world,” to use the title the newspapers gave him, until 1911, and his motorcycle record was not broken until 1930. This motorcycle is now in the Smithsonian Institution. Curtiss’s success at racing strengthened his reputation as a leading maker of high-performance motorcycles and engines.