Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1693:
CURTISS' MOTORCYCLES

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the other life of an airplane-maker. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Pick up any book on the early history of flight and you'll see Glenn Curtiss' name. It was Alexander Graham Bell who drew Curtiss into airplane building. The older Bell had taken a great interest in flight, and, in 1907, he hired Curtiss to head a group of young designers. After working for several months on some of Bell's radical ideas about flight, Curtiss and the group decided to develop a more conventional design -- and they succeeded.

After that, Bell suggested that they form their own company. They did; and Curtiss, the consummate entrepreneur, has been hailed as a great pioneer of flight ever since. But what was it, we might wonder, that attracted Bell to Curtiss in the first place?

Born in 1878, Curtiss had remarkable mechanical aptitude. He was only seven when the safety bicycle came into being. At twenty-two, he (like the Wright Brothers, whom he later battled over airplane patents) opened a bicycle shop. But Curtiss was an ambitious businessman. He went on to create his own bicycle factory.

Curtiss Twin-Vee engine, from his 1907 motorcycle catalogThen he acquired two engine-cylinders and built his own engine. In 1902, he announced plans to start making motorcycles as well as bicycles. Four years later, he was making an avant-garde machine with a twin-vee engine and twist-grip throttle control.

Twist-grip control had actually been invented by motorcycle pioneer Sylvester Roper just after the Civil War and then forgotten. Indeed, the motorcycle itself had hardly gone to market before Curtiss. The venerable Indian Motorcycle Company actually started making bikes the same year Curtiss did. Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson built their first motorcycle one year later.

But back in 1904, before motorcycles captured the public, Californian Thomas Scott Baldwin had gone to Curtiss to get an engine for his new dirigible, The California Arrow. The dirigible was a success, and Bell learned of the connection between Curtiss and flight when he visited the Curtiss motorcycle booth at a New York City Expo.

Glenn Curtiss at the controls of his seaplaneIt was under Bell's influence that Curtiss drifted away from motorcycles toward flight. He and his engineers built several series of experimental airplanes. They created an early seaplane and began their N and J series. In 1914, Curtiss merged these two designs into the famous JN-4, better known as the Curtiss Jenny.

The Jenny cruised at sixty miles per hour. WW-I pilots, like my father, learned flying in the Jenny. It was still the basic cheap American airplane long after the War. Its low airspeed made it ideal for barnstormers at county fairs. They walked its wings, flew loops, and parachuted from it.

But Curtiss first revealed his genius in the motorcycle. His was not the genius of seminal invention, but genius that shaped seminal ideas. What did Bell see in Curtiss? He saw pure mechanical energy, skimming the ground and skimming the sky. He saw speed and verve. He saw the driving force that made our twentieth century.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gridler, A., Very First Vee. Cycle World, April 2002, pp. 86-89.

Cameron, K., Creative Power: Glenn Curtiss: Inventor, Manufacturer, Racer, Pilot. Cycle World, April 2002, pp. 90-92.

Eltscher. L. R., and Young, E. M., Curtiss-Wright: Greatness and Decline. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998. (See esp. Chapter 2.)

I do not have a good copyright-free image of an early Curtiss motorcycle; However, many may are shown on the Internet. I am grateful to Keith Hollingsworth, UH Mechanical Engineering Department, for suggesting the topic and for providing the Gridler and Cameron articles (above.)

Curtiss taking off in an early airplane
Glenn Curtiss taking off in one of his early airplanes

Curtiss Jenny
A Curtiss Jenny, Courtesy of the US Air Force Museum


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.