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.”
“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.