TAKING FLIGHT: A century ago, Scientific American challenged inventors to a public display of their new manned flying devices, in part due to the secrecy of the Wright Brothers' work following their successful (but secluded) Kitty Hawk, N.C., flights in 1903. Image: Courtesy of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, N.Y.
Around the turn of the last century, people suspected that inventors were hard at work building flying machines that could take them up into the sky and (more importantly) deliver them safely back to the ground. The editors of Scientific American were among those curious about these devices and frustrated by the seclusion in which these inventors worked, particularly bicycle magnates Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Despite their successful flights that fateful afternoon of December 17, 1903, the Wrights kept their invention under wraps, for fear of a competitor stealing their design and making a fortune. As a result, only a handful of people ever got to see the Wright flying machine.
In a bid to bring manned flight into the public domain, Scientific American in 1908 established what became a highly coveted trophy for a flying competition consisting of three competitive legs with varying degrees of difficulty. Scientific American editors and members of the Aero Club of America traveled to Hammondsport, N.Y., on July 4 that year and witnessed the first public flight of an "aeroplane" (as it was called at the time) flown by Glenn H. Curtiss.
Curtiss won all three legs of the Scientific American competition (flying three different planes) and permanent possession of the trophy, which now rests in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Although not as much of a household name as the Wright brothers, Curtiss has been called the "father of naval aviation" for his role in building the first U.S. Navy aeroplane , the Curtiss 1911 A-1 Triad Amphibian.
By 1917, Curtiss had two factories in New York State—Buffalo and Hammondsport—employing more than 20,000 workers building aeroplanes and engines. In 1930 he received the Medal of Honor for his significant aviation achievements, which included being the first man ever to be issued a pilot's license. The rest, as they say, is history.