Roger D. Launius
Historical Research and Narrative
The Wright brothers taught the world to fly—without question—but who taught the Wrights how to fly? To a very considerable extent, Octave Chanute, a French-born, Chicago-based engineer, did. His personal investigations into the problems of flight measurably advanced knowledge about powered flight in the 1890s, and he shared that knowledge with the Wrights as they undertook the research that led to their successful 1903 test flights. The brothers corresponded with Chanute throughout their preliminary research, seeking his counsel and incorporating his ideas into their designs for an airplane. Chanute even visited the Wrights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, while they were testing their planes.
To understand how this transpired, one must go back and explore the biography of Octave Alexandre Chanute. Born in 1832, he was the diminutive son of a French immigrant to New Orleans. He began a successful career in railroad construction at the Hudson River Railroad in Ossining, New York, as a chainman on a survey team. A self-taught engineer, he became a legend for his novel designs and construction of complex bridges, railroad terminals, and use of unusual construction materials. His work on the preservation of building materials led to his invention of the system for pressure-treating rail ties and telephone poles with creosote, a technique still in use throughout the world. By the time he was forty-one years old, he was chief engineer of the Erie Railroad. Later as chief engineer of Illinois Central, Chanute relocated to Chicago, where he would live the rest of his life. Chanute's interest in flight began shortly after that. But he was a professional engineer, and (more often than not) people interested in flight were simply considered crazy. He kept his interest to himself for the time being.
Not until 1886, at age fifty-four, when most successful men would have rested on their laurels, did he begin a second career by devoting himself to solving the problems of flight. In typical engineering fashion of step-by-step investigation, Chanute assembled known data on the science into a single synthesis and catalogued its problems. While committed to advancing the cause of aviation, Chanute was always a hardheaded realist. He pursued aviation research as more an avocation than a true profession, much as others might pursue chess or bridge or gardening.
Very early he realized that the best means to overcome the problems of flight required numerous researchers, each engaged in dialogue with one another and kept organized by
someone with overarching vision. Chanute proved to be that person of vision, and he set about in the early 1890s to convince others to explore the problems he outlined. In August 1886 he organized the first serious professional session on the possibilities of aeronautical research in American history. Held at the Buffalo, New York, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Chanute persuaded Israel Lancaster, an amateur naturalist and aeronautical experimenter, to address the conference on the subject of "The Soaring Bird," complete with models. Despite Chanute's best efforts, Lancaster found a room of skeptics when he made his presentation.
Aeronautics' reception in Buffalo did not dissuade Chanute. He opened correspondence with everyone he could find conducting aeronautical research, and he became fast friends and sometime financial contributor to the efforts of aviation pioneers Louis Mouillard in France and Otto Lilienthal in Germany. He also returned to the AAAS conference in 1889, this time in Toronto, and outlined his plans for aeronautical research as an engineering problem and offered an agenda for working toward a heavier-than-air flying machines capable of carrying an individual. This time the skeptics did not laugh.
Buoyed by the positive reception at the AAAS, in 1893 Chanute organized an "International Conference on Aerial Naviation" at the World's Columbian Exposition, held in his home city of Chicago on the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the "New World." He brought together the best and the brightest working in the field, including Samuel P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and an ardent experimenter in flight; Louis Mouillard; Thomas A. Edison; and a host of others. They spoke of glider experiments, of research in guidance and control, of engine requirements, and of materials required for construction of flying machines.
The conference was a stunning success. The meeting laid the groundwork for what Chanute believed to be the appropriate strategy for achieving flight—the elimination of the errors of experimentalists and the advance of the science of flight by making known both their successes and failures. It led directly to publication of Chanute's classic book, Progress in Flying Machines (1894), which gave the world its first compendium on flight and earned him the title of the first aero-historian because of his extensive discussion of what the various experimenters had found in their research into the problems of flight.
For years it seemed, Chanute sorted false claims about flight from valid ones. He sifted through technical journals and among various designs for knowledge that might advance the cause of aviation. He also committed some of his not inconsiderable fortune to other people's experiments, viewing his selfless labors as necessary for humanity to break the bonds of Earth and reach into the sky.
Beginning in the summer of 1896, Chanute also engaged in gliding experiments on the shores of Lake Michigan not far from Chicago. But when he finally did so, they were not truly experiments but public demonstrations of the state of the art by someone who had become the patriarch of aeronautics. He was sixty-four when he and a small band of dedicated assistants went to the sand dunes along southern Lake Michigan for these flight tests. And they were enormously successful; one of the gliders flew almost four hundred feet. Chanute collected a significant amount of aerodynamic data after performing more than seven hundred successful glider flights through 1897. And he willingly shared his information with anyone who had an interest, including the Wright brothers, in the process helping to develop more advanced flying machines.
The Chanute glider was the most stable and sophisticated of any ever built until the Wrights began their work in 1900, contributing much to flight science in the areas of control systems and stability, efficiency of materials, aircraft structural integrity, and strength. In utilizing his knowledge of braced-box structure in bridge construction, he invented the familiar strut-wire braced wing structure employed in biplane aircraft. But Chanute was not cast in the same mold of the other early pioneers of flight. He played a different kind of role, that of mentor for others seeking to crack the riddle of flight.
Chanute deeply believed that the advancement of flight science must be the work of many. He corresponded internationally and encouraged the pioneers, including the Wright brothers, of whom he was a special friend and mentor. He sought no patents on his inventions and gave his findings openly to all. The Wright brothers used his research when they designed their 1900 glider. They also opened correspondence with him, asking for technical information and advice. Chanute, for instance, advised Wilbur Wright to find a sandy place, with strong prevailing winds, to lessen the problem of moving the glider from the point of landing back to the point of takeoff. This sparked the brothers' decision to journey from their native Dayton, Ohio, to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the conditions Chanute recommended existed nearly year-round.
From then on Chanute followed the progress of the Wrights with gleeful enthusiasm. He believed that they had the opportunity to succeed where so many others had failed. He sent his own assistants to North Carolina to work with them, and he visited them at their
camp on more than one occasion. When he could not be with them, he wrote to them. Chanute's correspondence with the Wright brothers consists of several hundred letters touching on every phase and stage of aeronautical development between 1900 and 1910. This literary exchange records with clarity and candor the development of practical flight. And since the Wrights generally kept no copies of their outgoing letters, we are indebted to Chanute, who saved virtually everything he received, for enabling us to see the process by which the Wrights produced a successful airplane in 1903 when others failed.
Chanute cheered in 1902 when the Wrights started making, as a matter of course, 600-foot flights in fully controllable gliders. With the success of those gliders, a powered aircraft now appeared within reach. The next year, on December 17,1903, the Wrights' plane took off and flew under its own power. The world has not been the same since.
No one proved a more effective advocate for the Wright brothers after their famous first flight than Octave Chanute. He steadfastly supported the brothers and remained their confidants until patent disputes erupted in 1905 between them and other flyers over aeronautical technology. Chanute broke off his correspondence with them at that time because he disagreed with their desire to control the technology of flight. For him, technical information was a public commodity, and he believed that the ability to fly would usher in a new age of enlightenment and that the Wrights were thwarting it. The relationship was mending at the time that Chanute died in 1910. The brothers attended his funeral, and Wilbur Wright delivered his eulogy. He said of Chanute, "His labors had vast influence in bringing about the era of human flight." No more appropriate epitaph could have been offered.
Click Here for Curriculum Materials