History Behind The Card: “Herring-Curtiss” Biplane.
Card #46 of 50, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Glenn Hammond Curtiss, in Hammondsport, New York, United States of America, May 21, 1878 – July 23, 1930, Buffalo, New York, United States of America.
- Augustus Moore Herring, in Covington, Georgia, United States of America, August 3, 1867 – July 17, 1926, New York City, New York, United States of America.
This is an interesting card. The title on the front does not exactly match the title given on the back.
The card is called the “Herring-Curtiss Biplane” on the front of the card, but the reverse omits the word biplane.
But that in itself is not what is a red herring… it’s the information provided on the reverse of the card.
It purports that the Herring-Curtiss aircraft pictured on the card is the result of the American half of the famed Aerial Experiment Association (AEA)—a group of some of the finest engineering minds alive, who created Canada’s first aeroplane – the Silver Dart. See Card #43.
Card #46, however, says that the AEA was half-American and half-Canadian, and that the American half created the Herring-Curtiss.
There were two Americans in the AEA: Glenn Curtiss, and Lt. Thomas Selfridge… with the latter dying after a Wright Flyer crashed with him aboard, becoming the very first airplane casualty, ever, on September 17, 1908.
That makes it three Canadians and one American remaining in the AEA at the time of their greatest successes… unless you want to include Alexander Graham Bell’s wife Mabel, who was an American and paid the AEA expenses… then again, while Bell himself had become a Canadian and created the telephone there, he was actually born in Scotland.
Anyhow… little things.
Card #46 also makes one think that the Herring-Curtiss aircraft was truly born from the AEA, but no… it was born from Curtiss himself, who was a key component of the AEA.
The card says that it was after the AEA split up, that the Canadian contingent came up with the Silver Dart aircraft. Nope. It was while they were still a group, less the now-deceased Selfridge that the Silver Dart became THE plane.
The card correctly states that the Herring-Curtiss was not part of the AEA’s design or focus.
So… who the heck is Herring and why was there no information about him/her on the back of this card… also, why was the Herring-Curtiss even given consideration to appear in this 50-card aviation series? Let’s find out. As I write this, I have no idea.
First off, Curtiss was one of early aviation pioneers… a true genius. Period.
Herring… he was more of a glider man… Card #32.
Born to a wealthy cotton broker, Herring studied in Switzerland and Germany, with his family settling in New York in 1884.
He studied at the Stevens Institute of Technology in 1885 and 1886, and was already constructing models of flying aircraft. Herring… he gave in a thesis paper entitled “The Flying Machine as an Engineering Problem”, but it was rejected by the school, and he left it, not graduating.
In 1893, Herring built his own glider, crashing it pretty much as he tried to leave the ground. This caused him to begin studying the glider work of Otto Lilenthal (see Card #29), and in 1894 he constructed a Type 11 monoplane glider based on the same originally constructed by Lilenthal.
Perhaps impressed by his ingenuity, Herring was hired by famed glider expert Octave Chanute (see Card #32), where he helped construct and test flying models created by both Chanute and himself.
In 1895, Samuel Pierpont Langley hired Herring to help him with his experiments. For more on Langley and his testing of aircraft that nearly beat the Wright Brothers, see Card #36.
Hmmm… lots of cross pollination of tobacco cards in this write-up!
Notice how Herring doesn’t sit still for very long? Was it a personality thing, or was he ADHD, or was it because he was interested in so many different aspects of aviation, or was he simply just that knowledgeable and his services were in great demand?
I can’t answer that. No one can truly answer that without first-hand knowledge of the person.
So, with the dawning of January 1896, Herring was off again, this time rejoining Chanute and his gliders, but also continuing his own work on the side.
In December 1896, he applied for a patent of a man-supporting, heavier-than-air “flying machine” that was motor-powered and controllable, but the patent application was rejected.
Apparently, the patent was NOT rejected based upon the fact that Herring had copied the glider work of Lilenthal, when applying for a patent on a biplane with a wheeled chassis, horizontal and vertical rudder featuring flexible controls, and a special curvature of the wings. Please note that there was no aileron or anything resembling them, in the patent drawings.
No, it was rejected—and this is even with 20 new claims in the patent request—because: “… no power driven aeroplane has yet been raised into the air with the aeronaut or kept its course wholly detached from the earth for such considerable time as to constitute proof of practical usefulness.”
Owtch. Patent rejected for a heavier-than-air flying machine because no has proven one can actually exist.
I suppose it must have been in the way Herring worded his application.
Despite all of this, Herring kept himself front and center in the pre-aviation industry by writing many scientific articles and pieces for the newspapers and magazines, so much so that he was considered to be quite knowledgeable on the subject of aviation, and was elected as one of the earliest members of the Aero Club of America, which Herring reveled in, being a frequent visitor to their New York headquarters.
A man of great self-promotion, I assume, it was on October 10, 1898, that Herring telegraphed Chanute to come and watch him fly a powered aeroplane of his own design, based on the Chanute-type biplane structure, using a compressed air engine at Silver Beach Amusement Park in St. Joseph, Michigan.
Needless to say, Herring couldn’t get it up. Yes, I said it.
The point of contention, however, is that on October 22, 1898, Herring says he made a sustained flight… and that there were two witnesses. Whomever they were.
The aircraft was powered by a two-cylinder, three horsepower compressed air engine, that reportedly would only have enough oomph to work for 30 seconds at a time.
Think about this – a very modest modern gas-powered lawnmower has 10 horsepower, and it’s in no danger of taking off mostly because it is under-powered… and the Wright Brothers’ Flyer aeroplane… it had a 12 horsepower engine.
How the heck was a three horsepower engines supposed to lift a person up into the air? Well… a three horsepower engine could lift up a small modern hovercraft… but I simply don’t see it being able to actively lift a person and flying wing up into the air. Especially when we are talking about a motor from 1898.
According to Herring, the aircraft was difficult to steer. But for those who saw the craft, it looked to be a traditional hang-glider with an engine…
but what about the two witnesses? Exactly.
There does not appear to be any documented evidence like the Wright Bros. had in 1903, and as such, Herring’s 1898 claims for having been the first heavier-than-air successful flight have been almost universally rejected. The State of Michigan likes to think it was a success but, no one else does.
The big problem appears to be the fact that there’s little information on what Herring did after 1898 through 1909 when he popped up as a partner to famed aviator Glen Curtiss.
Seriously… if you claim you had constructed a successful aeroplane back in 1898… and even if it got wrecked, wouldn’t you build another one in the ensuing 11 years? Several of them? So where’s the proof?
Maybe there’s a book or books all about Herring and those elusive 11 years, but it’s like what happened to Jesus in all those years from when he was a young kid to when it was time to be crucified. We can speculate all we want – that he was traveling and learning about different religions in different lands, but like Herring, we just don’t know.
I’m not comparing Herring to Jesus in any manner except that I don’t know much about what happened to each during a missing period of years, but I do know that after his attempts to motorize the glider, Herring suffered a double whammy: his shop burned down and his financier died.
As a result, Herring went back to work with Chanute, testing Chanute’s “oscillating wing” glider at the same place at Kitty Hawk where the Wright’s were working.
Chanute’s glider was a bomb. However, in 1902 Herring did get to see the Wright Brothers test a glider, seeing how it handled pitch, roll and yaw.
Maybe this is why Herring’s name isn’t such a huge deal in aviation anymore. He was a jerk.
After seeing what he saw of the Wright Brother’s glider work, he went to Washington to tell Professor Samuel Langley (see Card #36) what he had seen. Langley, to his credit, wanted nothing to do with the sneaky Herring.
Then, nine days after the Wright Brother’s achieved the first heavier-than-air flight in 1903, Herring wrote to the Wright Brothers and boldly offered them a partnership (three-way), claiming their plane was based on the Chanute-Herring glider, and that he (Herring) was the actually inventor of that glider.
The Wright Brother’s chose to ignore his claims and his “partnership offer”.
To retaliate – maybe – Herring bid against the Wright Brother in 1908 for the U.S. Army contract to construct an aeroplane for them.
At least the Wright Brothers had an aeroplane. Herring had none… still, because his bid was $5,000 less than the Wright Brother’s they ALSO offered Herring a contract.
Herring showed up on judgement day at Fort Meyer, Virginia with two suitcases and something he called his “innovation trunk” that he said fulfilled the Army’s contract. Riiiiight.
Then, when Orville Wright piloted and crashed his Flyer aeroplane and needed time to recover and was granted a contract extension, Herring suddenly decided to withdraw from the competition, claiming he had better offers, which he might have.
Herring went to Curtiss, who was already quite famous for his work on the Silver Dart and June Bug aeroplanes and someone who was already on the Wright Brother’s radar as someone to sue.
The Wright Brothers held the patent on the lateral control method of wing-warping.
However, Curtiss (and the AEA) had created an alternate method for lateral control – the aileron, which controlled roll in flight – and, of course, revolutionized aviation as we know it today.
Herring told Curtiss he had patents for an aeroplane that pre-dated the Wright Brothers aircraft.
So, on March 20, 1909, Herring joined Glenn Curtiss to create the Herring-Curtiss Company.
This ticked off the Wright Brothers, who promptly sued the Herring-Curtiss Company.
We’ll come back to the lawsuit after we take a look at the planes built under the Herring-Curtiss partnership… though it is actually doubtful that Herring had anything to do with the actual design, seeing as Herring had never really achieved the construction of an aircraft capable of heavier-than-air flight.
Say what you will, but Curtiss had a real knack for making things fly.
The first plane constructed (finished) under the new Herring-Curtiss Company was the Curtiss Model D biplane… a slightly different precursor to the Curtiss Model D Headless biplane that would become the most popular American aeroplane in the pioneer age of aviation.
Key differences are where the ailerons were placed on the two planes.
On the Herring-Curtiss biplane, also known as the Curtiss Golden Flier or Curtiss Gold Bug, or even more specifically as the Curtiss No. 1—the one pictured, but not named as such on the Wills’s tobacco card – the ailerons were placed on the front wing struts. On the later Curtiss Model D biplane, the ailerons were placed on the rear wing struts.
Now… there’s a bit of conflict here. Some sources say that Curtiss crashed his Curtisss No. 1, and built a new plane – the Curtiss No. 2, while others say he merely modified the Curtiss No. 1 to make it into more of a racer.
I am more inclined to believe that the No.1 crashed, and then building a completely new plane, he based it on the original design, but modified it. This is Curtiss No.2. also known as the Reims Racer.
The name came about because—while still under the Herring-Curtiss Company banner, Curtiss took the Curtiss No. 2 and entered it in the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de 14 (Great Aviation Week of 1914) event—the very first international aviation meet held August 22-29, 1909 at Reims, France to try and win the Gordon Bennett Cup race. You can read all about that race HERE and HEREAGAIN.
From Wikipedia: “The Reims Flier was an open-framework biplane with two-bay unstaggered wings of equal span. It had a monoplane tail that controlled the rudder but the elevators were carried forward of the pilot as a biplane canard unit. The landing gear was wheeled and tricycle in configuration, with each unit carrying a single wheel. Large ailerons were carried in the interplane gap. Curtiss modified the Golden Flyer into the Reims Racer by adding a covered stabilizer unit at the canard, increasing the wing size, modifying the interplane elevators and replacing the four cylinder inline Curtiss OX engine with that of a Curtiss OX V8 that had been stripped down and specially lightened for the race. A new, lighter fuel tank was exchanged for the older, heavier one.”
The plan was to make the plane more maneuverable while sacrificing speed, as Curtiss (pilot) planned to make quicker turns over the race, which was two circuits of 10 kilometers each.
His first run took him 15-minutes and 50.4 seconds. Louis Belriot did the course in 15-minutes, 56.2 seconds, meaning Curtiss won by 5.8 seconds, claiming the prize of FF25,000.
The Reims Racer/Curtiss No. 2‘s average speed was 75.48 kilometers per hour (47.06 miles per hour) which gave Curtiss a new speed record over the 20 kilometer distance.
More from Wikipedia: “After Reims, Curtiss took the aircraft to Italy, where he won events at a competition at the Air Show in Brescia in September. There, he won the overall grand prize by flying the required five 10 km circuits in 49 minutes 24 seconds. He also won the quick starting prize, starting his engine in 8.2 seconds, and took second place to Henri Rougier in the altitude prize, climbing to 165 ft (51 m). While at Brescia, Curtiss gave Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio a short joyride, but declined a similar request by Princess Laetitia on the grounds that the seat would be unsuitable. Returning to the United States, Curtiss flew the Reims Racer in the country’s first air meet at Los Angeles in October, setting a new airspeed record of 88 kilometers per hour (55 miles per hour).”
General characteristics Reims Racer/Curtiss No. 2
- Crew: One pilot
- Capacity: 1 passenger
- Length: 30 ft 4 in (9.25 m)
- Wingspan: 34 ft 0 in (10.37 m)
- Powerplant: 1 × Curtiss V-8, 63 hp (47 kW)
You will notice, however, that the aeroplane does NOT have Herring’s name in the description, even though by this time, Curtiss and Herring had a partnership and company together.
I can only assume it was because Curtiss designed and built this aircraft himself, with little to no input from Herring.
Back to the Wright Brother’s lawsuit against the Herring-Curtiss Company.
When Curtiss confronted Herring and asked him to produce his patents that showed he had designed an aeroplane BEFORE The Wright Brothers, rather than show Curtiss the rejected patent (perhaps unfairly rejected patent), Herring didn’t show up to the official meeting, and skipped town.
Curtiss then decided to completely rid himself of Curtiss by declaring bankruptcy and dissolving the company… though it did magically reappear soon afterwards as the Curtiss Aeroplane Company – still in 1910.
So – after WWI, thanks to Curtiss’ success in selling his aircraft to the U.S. Army, he was a rich man. Guess who came a-calling?
Yup – Herring. Suing Curtiss, Herring claimed that the Herring-Curtiss Company was never legally dissolved, even though Curtiss had declared bankruptcy, and so was entitled to monies Curtiss earned afterwards when Curtiss reformed as the Curtiss Aeroplane Company.
Herring says that he was cheated out of property and ideas by Curtiss… even though his proof would have been that rejected patent… still… could one partner declare bankruptcy in a company—Herring-Curtiss—without proper remuneration to the surviving partner?
We’ll come back to the lawsuit shortly.
The next year, Herring left Curtiss and joined W. Starling Burgess in Marblehead, Massachusetts to design and build aeroplanes – which he actually did with the newly formed Herring-Burgess Company.
The first aeronautical product of the Herring-Burgess collaboration, the Herring-Burgess Model A, made its inaugural flight on February 28, 1910, traveling 110 meters (360 feet), reaching an altitude of nine meters (30 feet).
A revised version of the Model A3 known as the Flying Fish was test-flown by Herring on April 17, 1910, flying over Plum Island as the second-ever heavier-than-air flight in New England.
Here’s a cool drawing of a Model C aeroplane – drawn in 1911, but after the Herring-Burgess partnership had dissolved, noting that it is based on a Curtiss design:
Shortly thereafter he terminated his association with Burgess because of a disagreement with another Burgess partner, one Greely S. Curtis. I guess Herring couldn’t get along with people named Curtis(sic). Anyhow, Burgess then formed another partnership with Greely Curtis called the Herring-Curtis Company, I think.
That Herring-Burgess Flying Fish airplane was sold to Joseph C. Shoemaker sometime in 1910 or early 1911, who, along with Fred C. Chanonhouse, modified it yet again. By August, the airplane was capable of executing basic flight maneuvers, including circles and figure eights. After a crash on September 2, 1911, which resulted in only slight damage, the airplane does not appear to have been flown again.
So what happened to Herring from 1912-1926? I don’t know.
Herring did some aviation design work for the United States Army during World War I, he later was partially paralyzed by a series of strokes.
I assume he was bitter. Then there was that lawsuit was Glenn Curtiss…
Herring died in 1926, but the lawsuit continued, with his wife eventually receiving around US $500,000 in damages.
Despite being correct in his partnership not being dissolved upon Curtiss’s bankruptcy, Herring’s behavior throughout most of his partnerships appears to have been pure acrimony at best.
As for the Wills’s Herring-Curtiss aeroplane so proudly shown on the tobacco card… it seems to have been an all-Curtiss production, with Herring simply around to provide assistance – even monies, perhaps…
Still… Curtiss is the name everyone recalls when discussing service to aviation beginnings, while the name of Herring is a difficult one to trace.
As for aeroplanes created by Herring-Curtiss… that one-year period was pretty much it.