Glenn H. Curtiss and his aircraft are an essential part of aviation history. You may still be surprised to learn that at one time, Curtiss was the fastest man on earth … on a motorcycle. Curtiss was an innovator with motorcycles before he ever touched an airplane; and before his time with motorcycles he made and raced bicycles. This is his story, from setting records on the ground, to setting them in the air, and making an indelible mark on aviation. 

Glenn Curtiss sits in an airplane. Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 

Glenn H. Curtiss got his start on a bicycle. He worked as a Western Union messenger, delivering messages by bike. He and the other messengers had a need for speed--racing their bicycles on their down time. Eventually Curtiss became both a bicycle racer and a bike shop owner; before turning his attention to motorcycles. 

Curtiss (front left) poses alongside employees in his shop. Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution.  

Curtiss embraced the motorcycle as a new transportation and motorsports medium in the early 1900s and built them alongside his employees in his shop. It was motorcycle engines that impressed early aviators, like Thomas S. Baldwin. The early aviation community sought out Curtiss because of his reputation for designing powerful, lightweight motorcycle engines. In 1906, he designed his first V-8 engine in response to several requests from early aeronautical experimenters. Baldwin, for instance, used a Curtiss motor to power the airship that he built for the U.S. Army. 

As a manufacturer and racer of motorcycles, it was only natural for Curtiss to wonder how fast a motorcycle would go with his powerful V-8 engine. He instructed his workers to construct a frame that could support the weight of the V-8. The motorcycle used direct drive, because a conventional chain-and-belt transmission could not withstand the power of the massive engine. Curtiss took the motorcycle to the Florida Speed Carnival at Ormond Beach in January 1907. He recorded a record-setting speed of 136 mph (218 km/h) during his run. It was there he was named “the fastest man on Earth.”

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This is Glenn Curtiss’s motorcycle featuring the V-8 engine. Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.  

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Besides riding and competing on them himself, Curtiss sponsored his own team of skilled motorcycle racers from 1904 to 1908. Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.  

1907 was not just a record setting year for Curtiss, it was the year that Alexander Graham Bell asked him to join the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). The AEA was a Canadian-American research organization. In two years it produced four viable aircraft, including the first powered airplane to fly in Canada. Curtiss designed and built one of the club’s viable aircraft: Aerodrome #3, or the June Bug, and became its main pilot. In July 1908, he would pilot the June Bug on a one kilometer straight-line flight to win the Scientific American Trophy.  

Curtiss was issued pilot’s license No. 1 by the Aero Club. (Because the licenses were issued in alphabetical order, Curtiss received No. 1 while Wright was issued No. 5.) Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.  

After gaining experience designing, building, and flying aircraft as a member of the AEA, Curtiss began building airplanes in Hammondsport, New York. As a designer and builder, he emerged as the nation’s leading producer of aircraft. Curtiss also discovered that in addition to selling airplanes to the government and individuals, he could make money by sending a team of aviators and aircraft on the road to air meets and exhibitions. As a pilot, Glenn Curtiss won the world’s first air race, receiving the Gordon Bennett Trophy at Reims, France, in August 1909. He flew at an average speed of 46.5 mph (74.8 km/h). He went on to win many awards in speed and distance competitions before the start of World War I in 1914. 

Glenn Curtiss’s team of aviators. Courtesy of National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution.  

Some call Curtiss the “father of naval aviation.” He made the world’s first practical flying boats and was a leading supplier to the U.S. and foreign navies. In 1910, Curtiss set up a winter encampment and taught flying to military personnel from the Army and Navy. The next year he flew his first seaplane and first amphibious aircraft, but perhaps more importantly sold the U.S. Navy their first aircraft—an A-1 Triad. That same year, one of the members of his team of aviators, Eugene Ely made the first ship-board landing on a special platform on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania, pointing the way to the possibility of an aircraft carrier. Eugene Ely made the first airplane take off from the deck of a ship, the USS Birmingham, on November 14, 1910. All of this paved the way for naval aviation.  

On land as a bicycle maker and racer, a motorcycle designer and the fastest man alive, in the air as an aircraft designer and pilot, and on the water through his work with navies, Glenn Curtiss left his mark on history.  

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