George Spratt, A Strange Contemporary of the Wrights

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

George Spratt, a young physician from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, was a good friend of Wilbur and Orville Wright. He was interested in the possibility that man be able to fly from an early age and found a common field of interest with the Wrights. He was with the Wrights at Kitty Hawk during 1901, ’02 and ‘03.

They had a falling out in later years when Spratt claimed that the Wrights didn’t give him sufficient credit for technical suggestions he gave them. Twenty-one years after they met all communications ceased when Spratt, in a letter, called the Wrights “secretive, obstructive and lacking in vision and generosity.”

Spratt once wrote that he was fascinated by flying creatures since boyhood. “Flying has been the dream of my life. I never scared a bird up or saw a valley, but I longed to go with it and envied it.”

The Wrights found Spratt to be a kindred spirit that shared their interest in the study of aeronautics. He was congenial and liked to tell funny stories.

Unfortunately, Spratt had a tragic downside. He was prone to depression that seemed to grow worse with age. The Wrights called the affliction “the blues” and Wilbur on several occasions tried to pull him out of it.

Spratt had a scientific background, having graduated from medical school in 1894. Strangely, the 28-year-old soon after graduating gave up his medical practice, claiming it was too strenuous on his heart and took up farming, which would seem to be a more strenuous physical occupation.

Spratt began his involvement with the Wrights when, like Wilbur, Spratt wrote Octave Chanute seeking information on aeronautics and asked him for a critique on a paper he authored on the possibility of man-flight.

In his letter of 1898 to Chanute he said, “Being very much interested in flying machines and fully believing in their economical practicability, I have had my views on the subject type written and send you a copy. I wrote them down primarily that I might have clearer grounds for experimenting, but am getting discouraged accomplishing so little for various reasons, principally lack of sufficient funds. With the discouragement, boldness makes itself felt and I take this liberty of addressing you. The flying machine must come and it will soon come.

He continued, “Studying the subject principally from observation of birds, etc., in complete isolation from other interest, I am ignorant of the advance made. — Will you do me the favor of reading and criticizing the promises and conclusion? I will surely count it as a favor. Am I on the line of thought generally accepted as correct? How can I keep in touch with the advances made? I want to know more,  I want to do more.”

Spratt shared with Chanute that he was studying the movement of the center of pressure on a curved surface and had designed an apparatus for measuring the lift on airfoils.

Chanute was impressed with his interest and activity and encouraged Spratt to continue his study. He further suggested that Spratt devise methods of testing the lift and movement of the center of pressure on a cambered wing.

Chanute backed-up his encouragement with an offer to pay his expenses for his experiments, including the construction of a full-scale glider.

Even though Spratt had said that he had accomplished little because of insufficient funds, he refused the offer of money because he thought he would “bungle” the job. Apparently Spratt had little confidence in his own ability to actually construct something.

On June 26 and 27, 1901 Chanute visited the Wrights in Dayton where they had a good conversation on what the Wrights were doing and the state of aeronautics in general.

As a result of the visit, Chanute decided that he would provide as much support for the Wrights as he could.

Chanute believed that the complex problem of flight could best be solved through a team approach. Several days after their meeting in Dayton he wrote to the Wrights, offering to send two assistants at his expense to Kitty Hawk for their 1901 test flights. The Wrights didn’t want nor need any help, but didn’t wish to offend Chanute so they accepted his offer but not on the basis of the assistants working for them.

Edward Huffaker, who had worked for Samuel Langley and Spratt, were the two assistants.

The Wrights brought with them to Kitty Hawk the largest glider ever made. They hoped to have solved the previous year’s (1900) problem of inadequate lift. Spratt arrived for his first meeting with the Wrights on July 25, 1901.

While watching the Wrights assemble their glider, both Huffaker and Spratt warned the Wrights that they might encounter a pitching problem during flight because of a phenomenon wherein the center of pressure on a wing quickly reverses itself at low angles of attack. This could cause the pilot to lose control as the glider suddenly pitches downward. (Picture is of Spratt at Kitty Hawk)

The Wrights did experience problems with control and had to reduce the camber of the wings of their glider in order to minimize the phenomenon. The Wrights give credit to both men for pointing this problem out to them.

The Wrights returned home disappointed with their glider’s performance. They began to suspect that there were errors in the lift and drag data in the Lilienthal tables they were using to design their gliders. They decided to develop their own data.

During the lull in the activities at Kitty Hawk, Spratt shared with the Wrights some of his ideas about measuring lift and drift (drag is the modern term). Determining the value for drag was the most difficult to do. He suggested measuring drag as a ratio of “drift to lift” rather than trying to measure it directly.

Subsequently the Wrights designed two different clever mechanical balances for use in their wind tunnel they built. One balance was designed to measure lift and the other to measure drag. They were unlike anything that Spratt had suggested.

Calculation of Lift: Their lift balance measured the angle of deflection resulting from passing air over a sample airfoil and a reference flat surface. An indicator on the bottom of the device registered the angle of displacement in degrees caused by the amount of imbalance produced by the wind over the airfoil.

A mathematical calculation was made to find the value of a lift coefficient from the indicated angle (the sine of the indicated angle). Knowing the lift coefficient, the value of lift could be calculated from a lift equation.

Calculation of Drag: The Wrights built a second balance that directly measured the ratio of drag-to-lift as suggested by Spratt. Knowing the lift coefficient from the first balance and the drag-to-lift value from the second balance the coefficient of drag could be calculated.

The calculations were a time consuming job. Chanute spent some of his time helping them. The experiments consumed three weeks of effort. The development of the data was a remarkable achievement.

In 1902 Spratt again joined the Wrights at Kitty Hawk for glider trials. Wilbur told Spratt that the 1902 machine was “an immense improvement over last year’s machine.”

The Wrights continued to enjoy Spratt’s company and their debates on the finer points of aeronautical theory.

After Spratt returned home, he sent $10 to the Wrights to cover some of his expenses for his three-week stay in camp.

Wilbur wrote him back, “Moreover we feel that your help was worth more than your board, so you owe us nothing anyhow. — “We owe you, not you us.”

In truth Spratt had contributed little other than the pleasure of his company and the concept on which the drift balance had been based. The latter was the year before.

The Wrights continued their lively discussion through the mail.

Spratt was working on his own theories but he became discouraged as he viewed that his own progress was not proceeding as well as the Wrights. He also was having trouble coping with the rough and tumble of the Wrights debating style and the realization that he was losing most of the arguments.

Wilbur wrote, “I see that you are back at your old trick of giving up before you are half beaten in an argument.”

In another letter Wilbur chided him, “I felt pretty certain of my own ground but was anticipating the pleasure of a good scrap before the matter was settled. Discussion brings out new ways of looking at things and helps round off the corners.”

Spratt in turn complained that their method of rounding off the corners by switching sides in the middle of an argument struck him as dishonest.

Spratt was invited back again to Kitty Hawk in 1903 to witness the attempt for the first manned-flight of the Flyer. Spratt, a good worker, helped construct the sixty-foot monorail to be used for launching the Flyer.

On November 5, the Wrights started the engine on the Flyer for the first time. The engine ran, but the vibration from several missed explosions caused one of the propeller shafts to twist. The shaft would need repair and both of the shafts strengthened. That would require sending them back to Dayton for repair as soon as possible.

Spratt decided to leave camp for home. He was upset and convinced that the Wrights were heading for disaster. He volunteered to take the shafts with him and arrange to have them shipped back to Dayton from the mainland.

The Wrights didn’t see Spratt again until 1906 although they kept up their correspondence during the interval. In one letter Orville described his joy at their accomplishments by writing, “Isn’t it astonishing that all of these secrets have been preserved for so many years so that we could discover them!”

In another letter Wilbur tried to get Spratt out of one of his periodic bouts of the blues: “I am sorry to find you back at your old habit of introspection, leading to a fit of the blues. Quit it! It does you no good and it does do harm.”

The Wrights were on a business trip in 1906 and stopped by Spratt’s farm in Coatesville for a side visit on their way from New York to Philadelphia. Spratt spoke of an airplane he was designing that didn’t need warping of wings, use of ailerons or a moveable tail to exercise control. He called it the “Equilibrium Machine.”

Spratt believed that the design of the Wrights’ system of control was unsafe. He believed that a way should be found to design a machine that was automatically stable. Spratt later complained that Orville and Wilbur didn’t show any interest in his idea.

By now Spratt was increasingly obsessed with the idea that he hadn’t received credit for being the one that told the Wrights about the measurement of the lift/drag ratio.

In 1908 he sent a harsh letter to the Wrights accusing them of depriving him of the credit for the design of the lift balance used in their wind tunnel experiments in 1901.

Wilbur answered, “We have not wished to deprive you of the credit for the idea, and when we give the world that part of our work, we shall certainly give you further credit.” “— But while we considered the idea good, I must confess that I am surprised and a trifle hurt when you say that the advice and suggestions we gave you in return cannot be considered in any degree a fair compensation.” “— But aside from the ideas and suggestions you received from us, we also furnished you copies of our tables, not only those made on the machine ( drag balance) of which your idea formed a part, but also on the pressure testing machine (lift balance).” — “I can cannot help feel that in so doing we returned the loan with interest, and that the interest many times outweighed in value the loan itself.”

In 1922, Orville was compiling a history of the development of the first airplane and wrote Spratt asking for copies of letters that Wilbur and he had written to him about their wind tunnel and propeller experiments.

Spratt responded by repeating his grievance and refused to send the documents. The friendship soured. Orville never wrote to him again.

One month before Spratt died in November 1934, he flew an airplane that he built. Spratt claimed that the machine incorporated all of his theories about airplane stability that he had devoted most of his life discovering.

It was a bizarre airplane. In an old film clip, Spratt is shown suspended like the weight on a pendulum several feet below the wings of the frail biplane.

Sprat claimed that the machine incorporated all of his theories about airplane stability that he had devoted most of his life discovering.

It is a sad commentary on Spratt’s life that a man who had been a confident of the Wrights and an eye witness to the events at Kitty Hawk, was featured with his airplane in a humorous newsreel clip called Aeronautical Oddities.

References: The Bishops Boys by Tom Crouch; Wilbur and Orville by Fred Howard; “The Forgotten Third Wright Brother” by Joe D’Angelo, Coatesville Ledger.

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