Wright Brothers – Wright Contemporaries

Articles relating to friends of the Wright Brothers.

Octave Chanute

One of the most extraordinary relationships involving the Wright Brothers is the one with Octave Chanute, 45 years Wilbur’s senior. It began when Wilbur wrote to Chanute introducing himself and asking for information on aeronautics.

“For some years I have been inflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man,” Wilbur wrote on May 13. 1900. It was the beginning of a ten-year close relationship between Chanute and Wilbur. Their age difference was not apparent in some 400 hundred letters between the two.

Chanute, a well to do businessman, civil engineer and railroad bridge builder, was well beyond middle age when he became interested in aviation. He conducted flights with multi-wing gliders on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1896 searching for a design that would provide automatic stability.

His experiments convinced him that it was possible to develop an inherently stable airplane; an unrealized hope that clouded his understanding of how the Wrights’ control system worked. This would have consequences that adversely affected their future friendship.

Chanute corresponded with airplane experimenters all over the world and was regarded as an expert on the history of aviation. In 1894 he published, “Progress in Flying Machines,” a compendium of practically all significant aeronautical work up to that time. It was considered the primary reference book for anyone interested in flight.

The Wright Brothers became aware of the book after Wilbur’s inquiry to the Smithsonian Institution in May 1899.

Wilbur wrote, “I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style

of Cayley’s and Penaud’s machines.” Wilbur continued, “I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success.”

The brothers, particularly Wilbur, became good friends with Chanute, even inviting him to visit their home in Dayton, and Kitty Hawk during their flight experiments.

On one matter they didn’t agree. Chanute believed that all advancements in aeronautical science should be shared with other experimenters around the world. The Wrights believed that their ideas and discoveries should be kept secret until they were ready to reveal them.

This difference in philosophy, as well as some other issues, led to conflict between them and eventually resulted in a serious break in relations that was only partially healed before Chanute’s death.

The dispute began over an article about the Wrights’ 1902 glider experiments Chanute planned to publish in a French scientific journal. At the time the Wrights had filed for a patent on their breakthrough 3-axes control system that they had validated in these experiments.

Wilbur was concerned about Chanute’s persistent requests for detailed information about how the control system worked and coldly responded:

“I can only see three methods of dealing with this matter. (1) Tell the truth. (2) Tell nothing specific. (3) Tell something not true. I really cannot advise either the first or the third course.”

Chanute responded:

“I was puzzled by the way you put things in your former letters. You were sarcastic and I did not catch the idea that you feared that the description might forestall a

patent. Now that I know it, I take pleasure in suppressing the passage altogether. I believe that it would have proved quite harmless as the construction is ancient and well known.”

The last sentence was particularly troubling to the Wrights because it was an indication that Chanute did not grasp the significance of what the Wrights had accomplished nor appreciated their achievement.

Chanute didn’t write the article but it didn’t make much of a difference because in January of 1903, he made a four-month trip to Europe in which he told members of the aeronautical community of the Wright’s progress. This had a number of unfortunate effects for the Wrights.

First it reinvigorated European, especially the French, interest in manned flight in which many had lost interest.

Second, Chanute’s lack of understanding of what the Wrights had accomplished created confusion when copy cat efforts failed. This undermined the Wrights’ credibility.

Lastly, Chanute exaggerated his own role in the Wrights accomplishments and misrepresented his relationship with the Wrights.

In a letter to Arnold Kruckman, Wilbur commented on the situation with Chanute. “Mr. Chanute is one of the truest gentlemen we have ever known and a sympathetic friend of all who have the cause of human flight at heart. For many years we entrusted to him many of our most important secrets, and only discontinued it when we began to notice that his advancing years (78) made it difficult for him to exercise the necessary discretion.”

By the end of 1909, the relations between Chanute and the Wrights took a decided turn for the worse. An interview with Chanute appeared in the New York World that among other statements claimed that the Wrights were not the first to use wing warping as a means of flight control.

Wilbur took umbrage with this statement in a letter to Chanute in January 1910. Wilbur pointed out that “This opinion is quite different from that which you expressed in 1901 when you became acquainted with our methods, I do not know whether it just newspaper talk or whether it really represents your present views. So far as we are aware the originality of this system of control with us was universally conceded when our machine was first made known —.”

Chanute quickly responded three days later, “I did tell you in 1901 that the mechanism by which your surfaces were warped was original with yourselves. This I adhere

to, but it does not follow that it covers the general principle of warping or twisting wings, the proposal for doing this being ancient.”

The basic problem was that Chanute did not grasp the basic principles of wing warping and thought that the Wrights were just superb mechanics.

Later in the same letter Chanute gives the Wrights a another jab by saying, “I am afraid, my friend, that your usually sound judgment has been warped by the desire for great wealth.”

Six days later, the piqued Wilbur didn’t mince any words. “Until confirmed by you, your interview in the New York World of January 17 seemed incredible. We had never had the slightest ground for suspecting that when you repeatedly spoke to us in 1901 of the originality of our methods, you referred only to our methods of driving tacks, fastening wires, etc., and not to the novelty of our general systems.

As to inordinate desire for wealth, you are the only person acquainted with us who has ever made such an accusation. We believed that the physical and financial risks which we took, and the value of the service to the world, justified compensation to enable us to live modestly with enough surplus income to permit the devotion of our future time to scientific experimenting instead of business.

You apparently concede to us no right to compensation for the solution of a problem ages old except such as is granted to persons who had no part in producing the invention. If holding a different view constitutes us almost criminals, as some seem to think, we are not ashamed.”

Wilbur continued by addressing the complaint that the Wrights had not given proper credit to Chanute for his help by summarizing their personal contributions to manned flight.

“However, I several times said privately that we had taken up the study of aeronautics long before we had any acquaintance with you; that our ideas of control were radically different from yours both before and throughout our acquaintance; that the systems of control which we carried to success were absolutely our own, and had not been embodied in a machine and tested before you knew anything about them and before our first meeting with you; that in 1900 and 1901 we used the tables and formulas found in books, but finding the results did not agree with the calculations, we made extensive laboratory experiments and prepared tables of our own which we used exclusively in all our subsequent work; that the solution of the screw-propeller problem was ours; that we designed all of our machines from first to last, originated and worked out the principles of control, constructed the machines, and made all the tests at our own cost; that you built several machines embodying your ideas in 1901 and 1902 which were tested by Mr. Herring, but that we had never made a flight on any of your machines, nor your men on any of ours, and that in the sense in which the expression was used in France we had never been pupils of yours, though we had been very close friends, had carried on very voluminous correspondence, and discussed our work very freely with you.”

“I confess that I have found it most difficult to formulate a precise statement of what you contributed to our success.”

Chanute didn’t immediately respond. Instead he wrote to George Spratt, a mutual friend, telling him of the controversy. “I am reluctant to engage in this, but I think I am entitled to some consideration for such aid as I may have furnished.”

Three months later after having not heard from Chanute, Wilbur took steps to restore their friendship.

“I have no answer to my last letter and fear that the frankness with which delicate subjects were treated may have blinded you to the real spirit and purpose of the latter.”

“My brother and I do not form many intimate friendships, and do not lightly give them up.”

“We prize too highly the friendship which meant so much to us in the years of our early struggles to willingly see it worn away by uncorrected misunderstandings, which might be corrected by a frank discussion.”

“It is our wish that anything which might cause bitterness should be eradicated as soon as possible. If we discuss matters in this spirit I believe all serious misunderstandings can be removed.”

Chanute responded two weeks later on May 21.

“I am in bad health and threatened with nervous exhaustion, had to go to New Orleans for a change in March, and am now to sail for Europe on the 17th of this month.

Your letter of April 28th was gratifying, for I own that I felt very much hurt by your letter of January 29th, which I thought both unduly angry and unfair as well as unjust.

I have never given out the impression, either in writing or speech, that you had taken up aeronautics at my instance or were, as you put it, pupils of mine. I have always written and spoken of you as original investigators and worthy of the highest praise. How much I may have been of help, I do not know. I have never made any claims in that respect, but I do confess that I sometimes thought that you did not give me as much credit as I deserved.”

“The difference of opinion between us, i.e., whether the warping of the wings was in the nature of a discovery by yourselves, or had already been proposed and experimented by others, will have to be passed upon by others…”

“I hope, upon my return from Europe, that we will be able to resume our former relations.”

Chanute did not make the trip and there was no further contact between the two of them. Six months later on November 23, 1910 Octave Chanute died at his home in Chicago.

Wilbur paid tribute to Chanute in The January 1911 edition of Aeronautics.

“By the death of Mr. O. Chanute the world has lost one whose labors had to an unusual degree influenced the course of human progress. If he had not lived the entire

history of progress in flying would have been other than it has been, for he encouraged not only the Wright brothers…”

“No one was too humble to receive a share of his time. In patience and goodness of heart he has rarely been surpassed. Few men were more universally respected and loved.”

Thus, came to an end their unique friendship. One can not help but experience some sadness to it all.

Reference: The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright edited by Marvin W. McFarland.

Bleriot Trumps Orville

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

July 30, 1909 was an exciting day for the Wrights. Orville completed the final army contract requirement for selling their airplane to the U.S. War Department. He flew the Wright Flyer in a speed trial to Alexandria, Va. and then back to Ft. Myer at an average speed of 42.58 mph over the 10-mile round trip.

It would have made headlines around the world except that a Frenchman, Louis Bleriot, had flown his airplane, the Bleriot XI, across the English Channel five days earlier.

In 1908, Lord Northcliff had offered a prize of $5,000 for the first pilot who flew across the English Channel. Bleriot, an avid aviator who was close to bankruptcy, decided to try for it.

He pointed a finger toward in the direction of Dover, England and took off from France on a rainy morning of July 25, 1909. He had no compass. Crutches were strapped to the side of the airplane because he had badly burned his foot on his plane’s exhaust pipe on a previous flight.

He headed for a place along the English coastline known as Northfall Meadow beside Dover castle. The meadow was only 100 feet off the water and the only site where he could safely land because the white cliffs were too high for him to reach and the beach at Dover was too small for a plane to land.

A French newspaper reporter standing in the meadow would wave a flag to direct Bleriot to the spot.

It was a calm day. It was so calm he didn’t have to use wingwarping or the rudder to fly a straight path. Events were going smoothly until he saw the English coastline in the distance. Then a strong wind came up and with it a mist that made it hard to see.

The wind was blowing him off course to the North. Just as he appeared to be in trouble, three ships came into view. He gambled and followed the ships, hoping they were headed to Dover. He guessed right.

He then headed southward along the famed white cliffs. Suddenly, he saw the flag being waved in the meadow and headed for land.

By now the wind was blowing harder, making a landing extremely difficult. He cut the engines as he neared the ground and made a controlled crashed landing. It broke

the landing gear and damaged the propeller, but he had made it! The flight lasted 37 minutes.

The Wrights had flown much farther by that time, but flying the English Channel had the crowd appeal that Lindbergh’s flight over the Atlantic would have 18 years later. The French newspapers immortalized the moment for the glory of France.

A crowd of over 100,000 welcomed Bleriot back to Paris as a national hero with a grand parade. It was comparable to a reception for Napoleon Bleriot was born in Cambrai, France in 1872. He established a successful automobile accessories business and then turned his interest to aviation around the turn of the century.

He made a series of airplanes with little success. His model XI first displayed in 1908 would be a success. The monoplane weighed about 500 pounds and was constructed of a frame consisting of ash and spruce covered in Irish linen. The wing area was 150 square feet. It employed an adaptation of the Wright Brothers wingwarping, the first European machine to employ it effectively.

A 3-cylinder, 25-hp engine built by an Italian named Alessandro Anzani powered the airplane. The engine spewed out a cloud of castor-oil vapor oil that covered everything including the pilot. It was crude but reliable.

Eventually, 132 of the airplanes were built. Some of them were used by the French military in the early years of WW1. A few of them still exist and can still become airborne.

Charlie Taylor was an indispensable third member of the Wright Brother’s team. It was he who built the custom gasoline engine that powered the first flight at Kitty

Hawk in 1903.

Charlie went to work for Wilbur and Orville on June 15, 1901. It was the beginning of a long-term association between Charlie and the brothers, both as an employee and a friend.

Charlie had dropped into the Wrights’ bicycle shop one evening for a visit. Wilbur asked him if he would like to work for them. Charlie asked, “how much will you pay?”

Wilbur replied, “$18 a week.” That was more than the 5 cents an hour that Charlie was making at the Dayton Electric Company, so he said he would take the job.

With the hiring of Charlie, Orville and Wilbur could now go to Kitty Hawk before the end of the summer when the bicycle business dropped off.

The hiring of Taylor was the recognition by the brothers that they were serious about pursuing their “hobby” of flying. They could now keep up their bicycle business and simultaneously pursue their hobby.

Charlie was on the job for only three weeks when the brothers took off for Kitty Hawk. They left Charlie in total charge of the bicycle shop which included handling all

the money. That was a sure sign the brothers had complete trust in him. Their trust was to be amply rewarded.

The brothers were pleased, but not Katharine, their sister. She didn’t like Charlie’s smoking and frequent use of profanity.

Began Work on Flight

When the brothers returned from Kitty Hawk that year, they knew that the published aerodynamic data on wing lift was in error and that they would have to create

their own. They put Charlie to work building a wind tunnel for that purpose. This was the first job Charlie was assigned that had anything to do with airplanes.

The redesigned wings based on the data derived from the wind tunnel experiments proved to be successful during the Wrights’ experiments at Kitty Hawk in 1902.

Now they needed an engine to power the aircraft. Failing to find a company that would build the engine, the Wrights decided to build one themselves. (One company

did offer to build a one cylinder engine that lacked power and was too heavy.)

Charlie started making the engine in the winter of 1902 and finished it in six weeks following sketches provided by the Wrights. He only had rudimentary equipment to

work with which consisted of a drill press, a lathe and hand tools, but that wasn’t an obstacle for Charlie.

The engine produced 12 horsepower, 4 horsepower more that the target design. The additional horsepower enabled the Wrights to strengthen the wings and framework of the Flyer.

The engine was relatively simple. Fuel flows by gravity from a can into a reservoir in the top of the crankcase, where it vaporizes and mixes with air flowing into the

cylinders. Instead of spark plugs, it has igniters that close like switches when a cam turns, then spark as they separate.

The crankcase was contracted out and was made of Alcoa aluminum.

Building the engine was an amazing accomplishment for Charlie. Although he had limited formal education and little experience with engines, he had a natural aptitude for working with machines.

Charlie worked steadily for the Wrights for the next 10 years as their chief mechanic. He was with them in Europe; with Wilbur during his extraordinary flight circuiting

the Statue of Liberty; at Fort Myers for the Army trials and many other locations. He could claim he was the first airport manager after managing Huffman Field in

Dayton where many of the brothers’ flight experiments were conducted.

The “Vin Fiz”

He left his job with the Wrights in 1911 to be the mechanic for Calbraith Perry Rodgers, who planned to be the first to fly an airplane, named the Vin Fiz, across the U.S. The airplane was a Wright built machine and Charlie knew how to maintain Wright airplanes.

Rodgers wouldn’t have successfully accomplished his goal without Taylor. Along the way the airplane crashed 16 times and was repaired so many times by Charlie that little was left of the original airplane by the time it arrived in California.

Continued Involvement with the Wrights

Charlie continued to work for the Wrights in their Dayton factory and stayed with Orville after Orville sold the factory and retired in 1915. Charlie helped Orville with his continuing experiments and kept his automobile running.

In 1916 Charlie helped restore the original 1903 Flyer for public display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. This was the first public exhibition

of the airplane and for the first time Orville realized that the Flyer was a valuable artifact that should be preserved.

Charlie left Orville’s employment and moved to California in 1928 where he worked in a machine shop and invested in real estate. The timing was bad. The Depression struck and Charlie lost his investment and his job.

In 1937, Henry Ford hired Charlie to help restore the original Wright bicycle shop and home. Ford was moving the buildings from Dayton to his Greenfield Village

museum at Dearborn, Michigan. Charlie stayed with Ford until 1941 when he returned to California and found work in a defense factory.

Tragedy and Redemption

In 1945, Charlie had a heart attack and never worked again. He eventually ended up in a hospital charity ward.

An enterprising reporter found him there and published an article describing his sorry status. As a result of the publicity, the aviation industry quickly raised funds to

move him to a private sanitarium where he died at the age of 88 in 1956. He is buried in a mausoleum dedicated to aviation pioneers in Los Angeles.

While Orville was alive (he died in 1948), Orville wrote Charlie regularly, including every Dec. 17, commemorating the anniversary of the first flight.

In his last note Orville wrote: “I hope you are well and enjoying life: but that’s hard to imagine when you haven’t much work to do.” It was signed “Orv.”

The October 5, 1896 of the St. John, New Brunswick Daily Sun contained a article titled, A Real Negro Poet; Surprising Gifts of Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

This historic 1896 article is reproduced below:

First, some background.

Dunbar and Orville Wright were classmates at Central High School in Dayton, Ohio. They knew each other well. Paul helped Orville with his writing and literature assignments and Orville helped Paul with math and science.

Orville began a printing business while still in high school and was the first to print Dunbar’s writings including advertising flyers and tickets for poetry recitals. One

was a neighborhood newspaper edited by Dunbar named the Dayton Tattler.

Dunbar’s book of poems, Majors and Minors, came to the attention of William Dean Howells, a novelist and critic and the dean of late 19th century American letters.

Howell’s praise of the book in the Harper’s Review launched Dunbar into the big time among literary circles.

Dunbar often wrote and spoke about civil rights issues and was friends with other famous black leaders including Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B.


Here is the 1896 article:

“At last an intellectual bridge has been cast across the chasm dividing the black from the white race! At last, for the first time in the history of this country – or so far

as we are aware, in the history of any other country – a man of pure African blood has arisen to speak for his people in the person of Mr. Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

For several years poems bearing this name have been appearing in the leading magazines, but they bore on the surface no racial mark, and the fact that some of them

were in the Negro dialect counted for nothing since many white writers have attempted that, although with less success. It was not, therefore, until a slender, quiet,

shabby little volume of verse, dateless, placeless and without a publisher, drifted out of the west and accidentally reached Mr. Howells – who is always quick to see

and never reluctant to praise what is really good – that the young African-American poet was introduced to the larger audience which the importance of his work


Only then did it become generally known that the author was black, that his parents were slaves who learned to read after they were free, and that he himself had

stood shoulder to shoulder with the heaviest laden of his race. He was educated in the public schools of his birthplace, Dayton, Ohio and was until recently an elevator


As these facts came out the significance of Mr. Dunbar’s poetry stood revealed, and it was recognized not only for its intrinsic worth, for its lyrical beauty and metrical

quality, which are quite enough to lift into prominence, but as the first authoritative utterance of the inner life of a race which had hitherto been dumb.

The little book thus voicing what had never been before spoken was privately printed and called “Majors and Minors,” the Majors being in English, and the Minors in

dialect, sometimes the dialect of the Middle-South negroes and sometimes of the Middle-South whites, and in the case of negro dialect reproduced with a perfection

that no white writer has attained.

These poems, covering a wide range of thought and feeling, have been gathered with a number of new poems into a much larger volume soon to be published by

Dodd, Mead & Co.

Mr. Howells has written an introduction to the new work (Lyrics of a Lowly Life), and in it he says:

“What struck me in reading Mr. Dunbar’s poetry was what had already struck his friends in Ohio and Indiana, in Kentucky and Illinois. They had felt as I felt, that

however gifted his race had proven in music, in oratory, in several other arts, here was the first instance of an American negro who had evinced innate literature.

In my criticism of his book I had alleged Dumas in France, and had forgotten to allege the far greater Pushkin in Russia; but these were both mulattos, who might have

been supposed to derive their qualities from white blood vastly more artistic than ours, and who were the creatures of an environment more favorable to their literary


So far as I could remember, Paul Dunbar was the only man of pure African blood and American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically. It

seemed to me that this had come to its most modern consciousness in him, and that his brilliant and unique achievement was to have studied the American negro

objectively, and to have represented him as he found him to be, with humor, with sympathy, and yet with what the reader must instinctively feel to be entire


I said a race which had come to this effect in any member of it had attained civilization in him, and I permitted myself the imaginative prophecy that the hostilities and

the prejudices which had so long constrained his race were destined to vanish in the arts; that these were to be the final proof that God had made of one blood all

nations of men.

I thought his merits positive and not comparative; and I held that if his black poems had been written by a white man I should not have found them less admirable. I

accepted them as an evidence of the essential unity of the human race, which does not think or feel black in one and white in another, but humanly in all.”

It is a curious fact that until the acceptance of his book Dunbar had never earned any money by his literary work. After high school he couldn’t find work so he had to

settle for the position of elevator boy at the Callahan building in downtown Dayton. He earned $4 per week. The few books he wrote and which gave him a reputation

were published at the expense of himself and his friends, and brought him no immediate profit.

His rise has been a hard struggle with discouraging conditions. When the acceptance of his new book of poems was announced it was accompanied by a sum of $400.

This amount was in the form of four crisp $100 bills of the new design. The poet had never been the possessor of so much money in his life, and its unexpected receipt

sent him into a state of ecstasy. His success, however, has not made any change for the worse in the simple and unaffected youth, who until recently guided the

destinies of an elevator.”

Dunbar developed pneumonia and died at the young age of 34 on February 9, 1906. The City Fathers of Dayton offered to bury Paul in Library Park stipulating that he

would be the only person interned there. His mother, wanting to rest by her son, declined and he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery adjacent to his friends the Wright


The Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton has been designated one of 31 National  Poetry Landmarks by the Academy of American Poets.

Laverne Sci, director of the Dunbar House State Memorial at 219 N. Paul Lawrence Dunbar St., said the selection puts Dunbar “in some wonderful company. I am

delighted at recognition for him that is both overdue and comes at a wonderful time.” (Dayton Daily News 08/05/2004)

Also see: Paul Lawrence Dunbar: The Wright Brothers Friend

John T. Daniels was one of the three men from the Life Saving Station at Kill Devil Hills that helped the Wright brothers launch the Flyer on its first flight on December 17, 1903.

Daniels became famous, as he is the one that snapped the famous picture of that first flight. He had never taken a picture before but it turned out to be a perfect photograph.

He was also famous for trying to save the flyer after it was caught by the wind while it was sitting on the ground after the fourth flight that day. A sudden gust of wind sent Orville and Daniels scrambling to catch the Flyer. They were too late, Orville let go but Daniels was caught up and trapped inside the structure as the machine was sent tumbling over the sand. The Flyer ended up being smashed into a tangled wreck.

Daniels emerged dazed but not seriously hurt still holding on to a piece of the strut he had grabbed. Daniels held on to this piece of wood all of his life. As he told the story to others he would take a penknife and shave off a piece of wood and hand it to others as a souvenir. He had great fun saying that he was the first airplane casualty.

John Daniels’ eyewitness handwritten account of the First Flight may be the only one made other than that of the Wright brothers.

Here is his letter to a friend describing what he saw just as he wrote it. The letter was written 20 years after the famous event and Daniels confused some of the events that occurred on Dec. 17th with events that occurred on the 14th. The coin toss he describes occurred on the 14th.

Manteo NC

June 30 —- 1933

Dear friend,

I Don’t know very much to write about the flight. I was there, and it was on Dec the 17, — 1903 about 10 o’clock. They carried the machine up on the Hill and Put her on the track, and started the engine, and they through a coin to see who should take the first go, so it fell on Mr. Orval, and he went about 100 feet or more, and then Mr. Wilbur taken the machine up on the Hill and Put her on the track and he went off across the Beach about a half a mile or more before he came Down. He flew so close to the top of a little hill the he Pulled the Rudder off so we had to Bring her back to the camp, and it was there I got tangled up in the machine and she Blew off across the Beach with me hanging in it, and she went all to Pieces. It Didn’t Hurt me much I got bruised me some. They Packed up every thing and went home at Dayton. That ended the Day. I snapped the first Picture of a Plain that ever flew. They were very nice men and we all enjoyed Being out at the Camp with them mostly every Day.

That accident made me the first airoplane causiality in the world and I have Piece of the upright that I was holding on to when It fell.

Would be glad to Render any informattion at any time you need it.


John T. Daniels
Manteo NC
Box 1W