Raymond Orteig was an early twentieth century French-American hotelier, aviation enthusiast, and philanthropist. The scale of his charitable giving was not especially impressive; in fact, it was dwarfed by that of many of his contemporaries. But Orteig’s philanthropy was nevertheless enormously consequential. He funded a highly innovative incentive prize that inspired Charles Lindbergh to make the first New York to Paris airplane flight. Decades later, it would directly inspire another incentive prize, one that would launch a new era of non-governmental manned space flight.
Born in 1870 in a shepherd community in the French Pyrenees, Orteig immigrated to the United States at the age of 12. He took a job as a bar porter in New York City, making $2 per week, and soon found work at the Hotel Martin in Greenwich Village. Orteig worked his way up in the hotel, serving as waiter, head waiter, and hotel manager, and by 1902 he had saved up enough money to buy the hotel. He renamed it the Hotel Lafayette in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, the young French nobleman who served as George Washington’s aide-de-camp. Soon thereafter, he acquired a second property, the Brevoort Hotel in Greenwich Village.
Orteig’s hotels were jovial places, overseen by the short and bald bon vivant. They were particular favorites of French airmen visiting the United States in the years after the First World War. Aviation was a young and risky field, and Orteig was captivated by the aviators’ war stories. “He developed a serious passion for aviation, dreaming of the good that air travel could do and wanting to find a way to help progress along,” write Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. In 1919—inspired by news of a nonstop flight from Newfoundland to Ireland and impassioned by the fellow-feeling among American and French flying aces—Orteig wrote to the Aero Club of America:
Gentlemen, as a stimulus to courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied country crossing the Atlantic in one flight from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care.
The distance, 3,600 miles, was twice that of the longest previous nonstop flight. At first, Orteig’s prize seemed impossible. After five years it remained unclaimed; Orteig renewed his offer. But the incentive prize spurred technological improvements, and aviators were determined to capture the purse. (Six men died in various failed attempts.)
On May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island in pursuit of the prize. Some 33 hours later, he landed the Spirit of St. Louis at Paris’ Le Bourget airfield. Orteig was vacationing in France and traveled to Paris immediately, where he met Lindbergh and arranged for the purse to be awarded. He later treasured the endorsed and canceled check as one of his proudest possessions.
To be sure, the idea of an incentive prize was not unprecedented. In 1714, the British Parliament created a Longitude Prize, to be awarded to anyone who devised a simple method by which ships at sea could determine their longitude within 60 nautical miles. But Orteig’s was among the first incentive prizes offered by a private individual. It encouraged enormous innovation. By some estimates, the purse sparked $16 of investments in new technologies for every dollar he had offered.
“The Orteig Prize captured the world’s attention and ushered in an era of change,” write Diamandis and Kotler. “A landscape of daredevils and barnstormers was transformed into one of pilots and passengers. In 18 months, the number of paying U.S. passengers grew thirtyfold. . . . The number of pilots in the United States tripled. The number of airplanes quadrupled.”
“Orteig-inspired madness” is how historian Joe Jackson dubbed the 12 years of extraordinary aviation progress after Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize. Hawaii was reached by an airplane in 1927. The U.S.-to-Australia route was flown in 1928. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. Patents were awarded for jet engine designs, and rocket-fueled aviation was tested. Delta and American Airlines date to this era. In the summer of 1939, Pan Am launched the first regular passenger service from the U.S. across the Atlantic on its Boeing “flying boats.”
Although Orteig himself flew regularly in the U.S., he never flew across the Atlantic. He made his annual summer sojourn to his native France by ship. Twenty years after he helped launched a new era in travel and innovation, the hotelier died in 1939.
Orteig’s incentive prize, however, has outlived him in influence. His achievement was the direct inspiration for the X Prizes created by Peter Diamandis. The first X Prize, funded by the Ansari family, offered $10 million for the first non-governmental team to launch a reusable three-person manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. With funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne took home the X Prize in 2004.
In the 1920s, Raymond Orteig’s philanthropy opened the skies over the Atlantic. Nearly 80 years later, its echo opened the heavens to private spaceflight. Thus did the one-time porter inspire a new generation of aviators to go aloft.
~ Evan Sparks