Unlocking The Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane

Unlocking The Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane

by Seth Shulman


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The first public flight in the United States. The first commercially sold airplane. The remarkable first flight from one American city to another. The first pilot license issued in this country. These were just a few of the milestones in the career of Glenn Hammond Curtiss, perhaps the greatest aviator and aeronautical inventor of all time.

Unlocking the Sky tells his extraordinary story — a tale of the race to design, refine, and manufacture a manned flying machine that took place in the air, on the ground, on the water, and in the courtrooms of America. Who would be the first to make a workable airplane, and almost as critical, who would control the right to use or sell this revolutionary technology?

While Orville and Wilbur Wright threw a veil of secrecy over their own flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, Curtiss teamed up with engineers in America and abroad, freely exchanging information in an attempt to resolve the most difficult challenges in constructing a reliable and stable airplane. In 1908, Curtiss piloted his groundbreaking June Bug in the first public flight in America. Fiercely jealous, the Wright brothers took to the courts to keep Curtiss and his airplanes out of the sky and off the market.

Unlocking the Sky elevates Curtiss to his rightful place as an all-American hero. Ultimately, the Wright brothers were unsuccessful in their efforts to monopolize the airplane. With plot-twisting interventions from Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Samuel P. Langley, and, of course, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Seth Shulman's gripping narrative captures the dynamism of an era, a time much like our own, dominated by the struggle for control over fast-paced and unsettling technological change. It is a story of invention and adventure that shatters longheld myths about the birth of the airplane and raises profound questions about the way we remember history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060196332
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/03/2002
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

Seth Shulman has worked for two decades as a writer and editor specializing in issues of science, technology, and the environment. His work has appeared in Nature, Discover, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Technology Review, and the Atlantic Monthly, among many other publications. He is the author of three books, most recently Owning the Future. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Intrigue at Hammondsport

If the Langley aerodrome flies, several chapters of aviation history will have to be rewritten.
-- BuffaloExpress (Buffalo, N.Y.),
May 20, 1914

The arrival of three imposing wooden crates has nearly halted work at the bustling Curtiss Aeroplane Company in Hammondsport, New York. It is a chilly afternoon early in April 1914 and, far upstate, spring has just begun to nudge the surrounding Finger Lakes region into bloom.

Workers haul the huge, pine-planked boxes, one by one, into the open courtyard outside the company's collection of gray hangars. As they do, more than half of the plant's one hundred employees stream outside to get a better look. Crates of parts, tools, and equipment arrive at this airplane factory almost every day. But today's boxes -- sent by rail from Washington, D.C. -- are an unprecedented delivery, the subject of hushed gossip at the plant for weeks.

Henry Kleckler, the shop foreman, wipes the grease from his hands and steps into the courtyard to help as his boss, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, approaches the largest crate. Curtiss is tall and trim, with a reserved intensity. He is just thirty-six years old, but his thinning hair and serious countenance give him an ageless air of authority. He is also a corporate executive more comfortable on the shop floor than in a boardroom. His easy rapport with his workers is obvious in the way they enthusiastically surround him.

Now, as Curtiss pries off the crate's big wooden top with the back of a hammer, the crowd of assembled mechanics, carpenters, and engineers falls silent. Inside the boxlie the crumpled wings of the most maligned airplane of all time: Samuel Langley's aerodrome, his infamous seminal attempt to create a piloted, heavier than-air flying machine.

The first peek is not encouraging. Packed over a decade ago according to Langley's instructions, the contents appear a terrible mess, full of twisted metal, broken wood, and tattered fabric. But as the knowledgeable workers draw closer to inspect the pieces, their initial dismay turns to admiration. Though old and badly damaged, the antique machine's craftsmanship is unmistakable. The wooden ribs of the aircraft's wings are not only exquisitely joined; they have been hollowed out to make the craft lighter. Unlike the canvas muslin used on most modern airplanes in 1914, the wings of Langley's plane are sheathed in a fine skin of now rotted, oiled silk. Curtiss calls it the most beautiful piece of work he has ever seen.

Now the hard part must begin. At the behest of the Smithsonian Institution a team at the Curtiss plant will try to restore the machine to its original condition. The goal: to see whether, if properly launched, Langley's plane can fly.

Confronted by the remains of the aerodrome, the workers recognize the scale of the painstaking restoration before them and wonder skeptically whether the battered and unconventional-looking machine will ever get aloft. Focused on the immediate problems of reconstruction, they are all but blind to the broader implications of tampering with the judgment of history. No one present realizes that before they are through, their efforts will ignite one of the most bitter controversies in the annals of aviation.

How strange are the whims of history and how difficult to predict and understand. Few could have expected the extent of ridicule Langley suffered for the aerodrome's failure or that, after languishing for more than ten years in the back of a carpentry shop at the Smithsonian Institution, the crumpled aircraft would once again become the subject of intense interest. Fewer still could ever have foreseen the aerodrome's voyage to this unlikely destination, rural and remote, some fifty miles southeast of Rochester, New York.

For generations, the Finger Lakes region has been known as New York State's wine country, home to hundreds of acres of vineyards nestled among tree-covered hills that slope to the edges of a series of long and narrow freshwater lakes. In this bucolic area, Mark Twain spent most of his summers and wrote some of his best-known works, including Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The towns here exude an upright American charm; peaceful, but too industrious-seeming to feel sleepy. In the heart of the region, the small town of Hammondsport is no exception, with a postcard village square lined with substantial brick storefronts.

Strangely enough, since the earliest years of the twentieth century, this improbable spot, far from any major metropolitan area, has seen a bustle of activity that will forever mark it as the "cradle of aviation." In fact, by 1914, Glenn Curtiss has amassed in Hammondsport the best and largest collection of skilled aircraft mechanics to be found anywhere in the world. As a result, the town's residents have never felt so much at the center of things as they do now. Over the past several years, it seems that everyone with an interest in airplanes -- from inventor Alexander Graham Bell to industrialist Henry Ford -- has made their way here to the Curtiss Aeroplane Company.

"Everybody in Hammondsport has an expert's familiarity with aeroplanes," gushes a reporter from joseph Pulitzer's New York Sun on assignment to Hammondsport in the spring Of 1914. "The most astonishing experience of the visitor is to hear an eight-year-old child talk about the virtues of flat surfaces as compared to curved surfaces with the glib sureness of an expert," he writes, "or to engage a charming young woman in conversation ... and have her give a learned dissertation on the thrust of propellers."

The catalyst for all this interest, the magnet for all this excitement and industry, is the quietly irrepressible Glenn Curtiss. Despite his relative anonymity today, Curtiss surely belongs in the pantheon of America's greatest entrepreneurial inventors. With uncanny regularity, his remarkable career led him to the heart of some of the most important pioneering developments in the history of aviation. In the course of a few short decades, Curtiss arguably contributed more to the modern airplane than anyone before or since, including: the first public flight in the United States, the first commercially sold airplane, the remarkable first flight from one American city to another, the issuance of the first U.S. pilot license, to name just a few momentous breakthroughs. Ask almost anyone today and they will likely tell you that these milestones were achieved by the Wright brothers ...

Unlocking The Sky. Copyright © by Seth Shulman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Langley's Folly1
Part IRewriting Aviation History
1Intrigue at Hammondsport25
2Wrights and Wrongs41
3America or Bust60
Part IIReaching for the Sky
4Captains of the Air81
5Sky Dancing103
6Flight of the June Bug122
7Sky King144
Part IIIWarped Wings
9Flight of a Hero186
10New Beginnings205
Epilogue: All But the Legacy223
AppendixA Partial List of Inventions by Glenn Curtiss231

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Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have always admired Glenn Curtiss and his accomplishments. While hoping for a more comprehensive look at his life, this book was really nothing more than a Wright Brothers hit piece in disguise. The author's vitriolic writing is tiring, managing (with the notable exception of one paragraph towards the end of the book) portray the Wrights as utter villains. The best part of the book was the opening chapter covering Langley's failure with his aerodrome.
Airplanepilot More than 1 year ago
Seth does a great job of outlining the importance of Glenn Curtiss in aviation. I learned a lot and recommend this book to aviation enthusiasts!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Last year I read a book about the Wright Brothers and was very impressed with their zest for scientific discovery. I thought they were short changed by Langley and the Smithsonian, but after reading this book I think they set back aviation at least a decade. Glenn Curtis is my new hero. This book tells an exciting story of one man's quest to advance a new science. Mr. Shulman's acount of the French air race is a true David and Goliath tale. I highly recomend this book to anyone who has had a dream but was short on commitment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Probably the best book on aviation I've read in a long time. The author's story approach is terrific, and he combines that with a tremendous talent for writing prose that teases you ahead with every line. You won't put the book down until you've completed it. If you didn't know who Glenn Curtiss was, you will by the end of the book. And you won't be disappointed.