Cover image for 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
Shulman, Seth.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2002]

Physical Description:
viii, 258 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
TL540.C9 S85 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
TL540.C9 S85 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Grosvenor Room-Buffalo Collection Non-Circ
TL540.C9 S85 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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.

Author Notes

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. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Shulman presents the story of Glenn Curtiss, a leader during the fledgling decade of aviation, which saw the airplane extend its flying range from 100-foot hops in 1903 to 100-mile cruises by 1914. Iconic to aviation acolytes but without the Wright brothers' wider fame, Curtiss was in the forefront of aviation design. To lend the story vibrancy, Shulman relates it in the present tense, enhancing the sense that although air flight was an inevitable technological development in the abstract, in actuality it was the outcome of much trial and error by several experimenters. There's no gainsaying the Wrights' first achievement of flight, but Shulman dramatizes how Curtiss rapidly outdistanced them technologically. The Wrights' innovations were obsolete by Wilbur's death in 1912, whereas many of Curtiss' inventions, such as ailerons and retractable landing gear, became lasting elements in aircraft design. With the Kitty Hawk centenary approaching, Shulman's lively work provides balance to the celebration. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Unlocking The Sky 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 box lie 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. Excerpted from Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane by Seth Shulman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Langley's Follyp. 1
Part I Rewriting Aviation History
1 Intrigue at Hammondsportp. 25
2 Wrights and Wrongsp. 41
3 America or Bustp. 60
Part II Reaching for the Sky
4 Captains of the Airp. 81
5 Sky Dancingp. 103
6 Flight of the June Bugp. 122
7 Sky Kingp. 144
Part III Warped Wings
8 Groundedp. 169
9 Flight of a Herop. 186
10 New Beginningsp. 205
Epilogue: All But the Legacyp. 223
Appendix A Partial List of Inventions by Glenn Curtissp. 231
Sourcesp. 235
Acknowledgmentsp. 245
Indexp. 247