Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane
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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 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.
D.C. They have come to glimpse the future. Most have made their way from the city in horse-drawn carriages; some in newfangled motorcars. And now, with overcoats and caps, blankets and field glasses, they huddle against the bitter breeze, chatting excitedly on the riverbank. Scores more have come via the Potomac from nearby wharves, navigating chunks of bobbing ice. They peer from the decks of barges, yachts, and sailboats moored for the unannounced event. Prominent among the onlookers is a
of the Aero Club and lifelong ally of Curtiss and the AEA, came to town upon hearing of their work and, for several months, became almost an adjunct member of the team. An independently wealthy balloonist, Post was an enthusiastic observer and a cheerful extra hand. He was also a prolific writer who would ultimately pen some of the most colorful and detailed remembrances of Curtiss’s exploits. For all the ferment and camaraderie, though, the AEA operated in virtually uncharted territory.
deafening drone of the engine behind his head shuts out all other sound. Nonetheless, he feels in complete control of the airplane and intensely alert to the tiniest details around him on the crystalline day. Below him, Curtiss sees groups of people staring from the riverbanks and boaters waving; the captain of a river tugboat toots its horn; although Curtiss can’t hear it, he sees the blast of white steam rise eerily silent into the air below him. Sooner than expected, Curtiss sees the distant
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affable, organized, and unfailingly loyal to Curtiss in a relationship that extended far beyond the confines of the rapidly expanding business. For years, Genung and his wife, Martha—who also worked at the “shop”—even lived in the back of the same big house where Curtiss resided with his wife Lena. Meanwhile, Henry Kleckler, Curtiss’s shop foreman, earned a near-legendary status among early airplane designers for his natural engineering gifts. As one account puts it, his coworkers used to say