After stunning the world with the delicate lift-off of the first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Wright Brothers spent most of their lives litigating rather than innovating. The main focus of their ire was Glenn Curtis. The young man from Hammondsport, NY was a born tinkerer who loved speed. As a teenager working for the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company he invented a system that allowed the backs of film to be stenciled 100 times faster. As a young man he would set a land speed record of 136.3 MPH on Ormond Beach in Florida racing on the hard-packed sands on a monster eight-cylinder motorcycle. Just for fun.
But it was in the world of aviation that Curtiss would leave a lasting legacy despite years of battling the Wrights in court over patent claims. The Wrights used wing warping to control flight; Curtiss developed ailerons to manage lateral control. He would also eventually develop the seaplane, retractable landing gear, and methods for landing and taking off from boat decks. Some of his ideas are still in use in airplane carrier launches today.
In 1913 while visiting Tom Sopwith’s factory, Curtiss met B. Douglas Thomas. The two hit it off immediately and with Sopwith’s blessing, Curtiss hired Thomas to join his company as a designer. Thomas designed both the Curtiss J and its more powerful update, the N. Curtiss took the best features of both and designed the Curtiss-JN which started rolling off the factory floor in 1916. This was the plane in which 95% of American pilots learned to fly in the war years.
This was also the plane that, rendered accidentally flying upsidedown, would become one of the most famous images in philatelic history.