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No. 2708:
June Bug

Today, the first airplane prize. 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.

We've heard of the Orteig Prize: $25,000 for the first non-stop aeroplane flight from New York to Paris. Hotel owner Raymond Orteig first offered it 1919. But it was eight years before Lindbergh flew the 5,800 kilometer route to win it. 

I mention the distance because the very first air prize was a $2,500 long-distance prize -- close to a hundred thousand of today's dollars. It was offered in 1907. To win it, one had to fly a distance of -- you ready for this? -- one kilometer, a scant six tenths of a mile. (Just think: Lindbergh got around seven dollars a mile while this paid $4,000 per mile.)

In any case, the Wright brothers were a shoo-in. One sponsor, Scientific American Magazine, was doing penance for doubting them after they first reported flying. The other, the Aero Club of America, had supported them all along. By then the Wrights had repeatedly flown much further. All they had to do to win was show up. 

But then a dark horse appeared: Alexander Graham Bell had formed a group of four young inventors called the Aerial Experiment Association. One was Glenn Curtiss who designed their third aeroplane, the June Bug. Curtiss wrote to say he wanted to enter. The alarmed contest organizers urged the Wrights to hurry up. 

But the Wrights we're working on the sale of their aeroplane to the Army. And Orville was writing an article for the esteemed Century Magazine. He knew that article that would help cement their place as the aeroplane's inventors. Then the last straw: They found they'd have to take off from the ground, instead of using a catapult. Wilbur wrote to decline the invitation

So Curtiss took the prize in Hammondsport, New York. His June Bug flew 1.6 kilometers -- a full mile -- at forty miles an hour. 

Period photo of Glenn Curtiss' June Bug winning the race.

Trouble followed: The Wrights' controlled their aeroplane with a set of cables that warped the wings. Bell had invented, instead, a hinged airfoil, like those used ever since. Curtiss used Bell's airfoils on his June Bug and the Wrights were furious.

Curtiss' ailerons
This is a replica of Curtiss Golden Flier, built a year after the June Bug. Like the June Bug, it had ailerons, separate from the wings, mounted between each pair of wing tips. The orientation of the horizontal stabilizers in front of the pilot is likewise under his control. (Photo by J. Lienhard) 

They figured that an airfoil was just a modification of their method. They sued Curtiss for patent infringement and the patent wars went on 'til the government took over airplane building in WW-I. By then both parties were drained. Wilbur had died of typhoid fever, and Curtiss emerged as the more successful airplane builder. 

But we now had a culture of aeroplane prizes. Prizes were a driving force from the June Bug's one mile flight until the second world war. The Schnieder and Bendix Trophies, the Bennett Cup, the Great Britain to Australia Prize ... on and on. America's wildly productive love affair with flight did not begin at Kitty Hawk. It really began five years later in Hammondsport. 

After Glenn Curtiss' nearly forgotten flight in his nearly forgotten June Bug, we were, for a season, quite swept away in the longer-higher-faster-further culture of air races and air prizes. 

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

(Theme music)

For more on the spinoff of Bell's Aerial Experiment Association, see Michael Barratt's Episode on the death of Thomas Selfridge.

For an excellent contemporary analysis of flight, at that time, see V. Lougheed, Vehicles of the Air: A Popular Exposition of Modern Aeronautics with Working Drawings.(Chicago: The Reilly and Britton Co. 1909/1910).

The Winning Flight of the "June Bug" Aeroplane for The Scientific American Trophy.Scientific American Magazine (July, 1908). 

On line reports of the dollar value of the Scientific American Trophy vary. Some give $25,000; some $2,500. The latter number is given by the US Government and the Aero Club. 

See also this Wright Brothers page, And the Wikipedia June Bug page (which quotes the suspect prize value of $25,000.) 


Curtiss at the controls
Curtiss at the controls of an unspecified 1909 aeroplane. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)