Octave Chanute and the Wright Brothers

In 1832, a son, Octave, was born to the Chanut family in Paris. When Octave was six, his father, estranged from his wife, took him and sailed to New Orleans to teach at the newly-created Jefferson College. The deepening financial crisis following the 1837 Crash led to his soon losing his job, so he took his now 10-year old son on a steamboat up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to Pittsburgh and then overland by canal boat and rail to New York City.

Their situation did not improve much and his father was not in a position to help Octave attend college. So, in 1848, he managed to get an interview with John Jervis, the Chief Engineer constructing the railway being built to connect New York City with Albany. Jervis found him a position with a survey crew.

Like Jervis with canal-building a generation before, Chanute, who added an ‘e’ to his last name to help Americans pronounce it, rose quickly in the railroad business, becoming a division engineer on the Hudson and Albany line when he was 20. Over the next decade and more, he rose to become a division manager on a variety of railroads, mostly in and around Illinois.

Chanute became involved as a trusted associate of James Joy, the head of a consortium of Boston railroad investors. One of Joy’s lawyers was Abraham Lincoln. Chanute had some professional contact with him, including providing expert testimony on behalf of Lincoln’s clients in the famous ‘Effie Afton’ case.

Chanute was first introduced to the idea of flight with the exploits of one Silas M. Brooks, a Connecticut-born protégé of P.T. Barnum, who began to copy the master promoter in taking by circus through the east and Midwest in the. Brooks became interested in ballooning and soon added this attraction to his circus, using hydrogen generated chemically on the spot to provide buoyancy. At one of his stops in Illinois, Chanute apparently saw the balloon ascend and never forgot it.

By 1895, inspired by the German Otto Lilienthal’s work on gliders, Chanute began hiring help to build and to fly some glider designs of his own. While Lilienthal tried to maintain control by swinging his body hanging below the glider, Chanute felt this was impractical for anything larger than what we today would call a ‘hang glider’. He developed a method for flexing the wings and some of his later biplane wing designs came from his bridge-building truss experience.

In June,1896, Chanute took his modified Lilienthal-type designs to the Indiana Dunes at the southern end of Lake Michigan to test them. After 100 tries, he was convinced that the hanging style of Lilienthal would require the skills of an acrobat to maneuver a glider successfully. Unfortunately, he was proven right when Lilienthal was killed in Germany that August.

Chanute persisted and made adaptations to his gliders, discovering in a second trip in August and September that his biplane design, the ’Katydid’, seemed to be quite responsive. By the end of the tests, his employees had made some 700 flights and had broken Lilienthal’s distance record. He had spent $10,000 on his people and planes, but felt he had advanced toward a workable and safe glider. However, the shock of Lilienthal’s death led to a pause in his and similar researches.

Whether it was the dunes of the Indiana shoreline in 1896 or the dunes of the North Carolina seashore some years later, sand and wind played a role in the development of the airplane. So did wind tunnels, curved wing surfaces, wingtip twisting or ailerons and a host of other items.

Most important inventions, such as the airplane, were social inventions. Like the telegraph, the telephone, the electric light, the personal computer and the automobile, a successful airplane design would have appeared within a few years of when the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, took a leave from assembling and selling bicycles to figure out how to fly.

Wilbur claimed that he was also struck by the report that Otto Lilienthal had died in a glider mishap. This led him eventually to write to the Smithsonian Institution in 1899, asking for information and materials relating to flight. The Smithsonian sent him a package and recommended he get a copy of Chanute’s 1894 book, Progress in Flying Machines. Reading it, he then wrote to Chanute in 1900 with some questions. This started a complex, decade-long relationship between the brothers and Octave Chanute.

Chanute took the Wright brothers, among others, under his wing, realizing that a new generation had to be coached to carry on. As the Wrights rapidly progressed, flying a glider at Kitty Hawk only 6 months after Chanute had received Wilbur’s first letter, he saw real possibilities in them.

Wilbur must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to Chanute, because he had familiarized himself with the knowledge acquired to date before considering building a glider. Most others simply tinkered with fanciful designs and tried to fly them.

Then came years of testing kites in Dayton and gliders at Kitty Hawk North Carolina before a motorized flight took place. They showed advanced thinking, getting a light aluminum engine block from a new company in Pittsburgh and then having a talented mechanic quickly construct an efficient motor using it. The Wright propeller design was also original, as the brothers quickly discovered that ships’ propeller designs were unsuitable for use in the air.

The brothers’ experience with bicycles taught them the need for balance and stability as, not a requisite for flight, but the requisite for it.. Other experimenters were concerned with propulsion (Langley) or lift (Chanute and Lilienthal), not balance. Balance in the air was more complex than on a bicycle.

The Wrights’ flight in December, 1903, comes down to us as a symbol, not unlike Benz’ first gasoline-powered buggy. It had no practical value, but was more a proof of concept. Their patent was granted in 1906 and the brothers spent a couple of years trying to make contact with militaries and arms sales agents, but finally succeeded in getting many contracts in America and Europe.

It is no wonder that Wilbur began after 1904 to distance himself from Chanute, whose desire for information-sharing was not needed in an environment where well-financed others, like Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, needed the Wright data and information in order to beat them to commercializing their work.

Wilbur retained his regard for Chanute even as he hurt the older man’s feelings by his secretiveness, but this was no longer science or engineering. Business was business. The brothers gained a lot from Chanute in terms of data and information. They also gained from his advice. However, Chanute failed to appreciate how much inventiveness had gone into their machine; he suggested as late as 1902 that they should patent their glider, missing the point that the Wrights were attempting nothing less than powered flight as a patent goal.

When Chanute died in 1910, Wilbur wrote a memorial article stating, ‘[H]is labors had vast influence in bringing about the era of human flight….Few men were more universally respected and loved’.

The Wrights were careful experimenters who followed a careful engineering approach made possible by the likes of Octave Chanute, the railroad bridge-builder. They were the beneficiaries of the professionalization of a variety of engineering disciplines.

So we come down to these three people; Chanute the Yankee-trained engineer-communicator and Wilbur and Orville Wright, the half-Yankee bicycle boys turned inventors.


For extra reading, I suggest: Simine Short, Locomotive to Aeromotive: Octave Chanute and the Transportation Revolution Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011, and Peter L. Jakab, Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention Shrewsbury UK: Airlife 1990.