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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

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by Seth Shulman

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Unlocking the Sky tells the extraordinary tale of the race to design, refine, and manufacture a manned flying machine, a race that took place in the air, on the ground, and in the courtrooms of America. While the Wright brothers threw a veil of secrecy over their flying machine, Glenn Hammond Curtiss -- perhaps the greatest aviator and aeronautical


Unlocking the Sky tells the extraordinary tale of the race to design, refine, and manufacture a manned flying machine, a race that took place in the air, on the ground, and in the courtrooms of America. While the Wright brothers threw a veil of secrecy over their flying machine, Glenn Hammond Curtiss -- perhaps the greatest aviator and aeronautical inventor of all time -- freely exchanged information with engineers in America and abroad, resulting in his famous airplane, the June Bug, which made the first ever public flight in America. Fiercely jealous, the Wright brothers took to the courts to keep Curtiss and his airplane out of the sky and off the market. Ultimately, however, it was Curtiss's innovations and designs, not the Wright brothers', that served as the model for the modern airplane.

Editorial Reviews

Driving the motorcycle he invented at 135 miles an hour, Glenn Hammond Curtiss earned the nickname "the fastest man alive." Having conquered the earth, Curtiss turned to the heavens. By 1908, he had a plane in the air, but he soon discovered that the Wright brothers, who had been there first, were attempting to monopolize the skies. Dickering for military contracts and filing for patents, the brothers aimed to dominate all aerial transportation despite the limitations of their own inventions. Unlocking the Sky tells the story of an American pioneer who refused to slow down.
Publishers Weekly
Journalist Shulman (Owning the Future) gives readers a jumbled but compelling revision to accepted aviation history in this study of American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. A bicycle builder like the Wright brothers, he was second into the air (1908), but invented more of modern aviation technology and built better airplanes. This did not keep the Wrights (particularly Orville) from suing Curtiss on the questionable ground that their patent gave them a monopoly of airplane building in the U. S. Shulman's account presents Curtiss as the Little Guy vs. the Corporate Monopolists and uses "non-fiction novel" techniques (e.g., assigning Curtiss present-tense internal dialogue) in a way that calls unnecessary attention to them. It also tries to cram too many subjects into a modest length, but in the end it succeeds in offering the general reader an up-to-date overview of Curtiss's remarkable achievements. 8-page b&w photo insert (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Catching the wave of current anti-Wright scholarship as exemplified by Herbert A. Johnson's Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation Through World War I, this study reviews the remarkable public career of Glenn Hammond Curtiss and his bitter legal feud with Orville and Wilbur Wright, a contest (1909-17) that pitted the virtues of open, shared access to technological change against the powerful economic force of monopoly ownership. Shulman charges that the Wright patent suits discouraged aeronautical experimentation, dampened potential investment in the industry, and contributed to America's unpreparedness on the eve of World War I. In contrast to Dayton's "greedy spoilers," Shulman's subject emerges as a man of energy and genius whose accomplishments include being the first to make a public flight, the first to fly from one city to another, the first to receive a pilot's license, the first to sell a commercial airplane, the first to design and build an aircraft that would fly the Atlantic Ocean (in May 1919, predating Charles Lindbergh by eight years), the originator of 500 inventions, and the favored recipient of aviation's highest awards. Shulman's facile writing style and gift for presenting a suspenseful narrative more than compensate for his somewhat idolatrous approach to Curtiss's life. Recommended for all aviation collections, especially in public libraries. John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Cleveland Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Shulman moves on from polemical exposé (Owning the Future: Staking Claims on the Knowledge Frontier, 1999) to polemical biography, profiling a nearly forgotten aviation pioneer whose story proves that even when men were men, there were still lawyers. The author lets us know immediately where his sentiments lie in the rivalry between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, all three of whom, it seems, parlayed an eighth-grade education about as far as it could go a century ago. Shulman finds Curtiss (1878-1930) to be a true inventor with the heart of a hero, while Orville and Wilbur were so obsessed with nailing down the broadest possible patent benefits stemming from their singular triumph at Kitty Hawk in 1903 that they ultimately spent far more time mounting vituperous litigation to suppress the state of the art than they ever did to advance it. While aspects of that rivalry remain unresolved and controversial to this day, there is no doubt that Curtiss, credited with some 500 inventions that contributed to the rapid evolution of aircraft over three decades, was hounded undeservedly through the entire period by the brothers and their law firms. The author ably evokes an age when innovation was hot in the wind: both Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford had occasion to seek out the school dropout from Hammondsport, New York, the former to collaborate with Curtiss on aviation experiments, the latter to commiserate from experience with his own battle against predatory patent attorneys. With help like this, and the ability to get as much out of a gas-powered reciprocating engine as any man alive in his time, Curtiss persevered, set speed and distance records as his aircraft evolved incapability, invented the seaplane, and even, as part of a prize-winning flight down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City, delivered the first "airmailed" letter. An effective tribute to an innovator unjustly overshadowed by his litigious peers.

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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.

Meet 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.

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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.