Although Octave Chanute was born in France, he and his family moved to the United States in 1838. Most of his adult years were spent in the U.S. railroad sector as an engineer, but it was after he retired from it that he gained greater fame as an aviation pioneer – credited with helping many a would-be aviator with advice, including the Wright Brothers.
Along with designing and constructing the America’s two largest stockyards: Chicago Stock Yards in 1865 and the Kansas Stock Yards in 1871, he designed and built bridges for rail, including the Hannibal Bridge – the first bridge to cross the Missouri River in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1869 which helped establish Kansas City as the dominant city in the region.
He also invented a way to pressure treat railway ties and telephone poles with creosote to extend its working life.
Although Chanute first became interested in aviation after watching a hot-air balloon take flight in 1856, it wasn’t until after he retired from his railway engineering job (in either 1883 or 1889) that he went to work furthering the new field of aviation, which because of his reputation helped give aviation a tremendous push.
While Chanute was smart enough to realize he was too old to fly himself, he nonetheless began collecting as much global historical data as he could and published it in a series between 1891 and 1893 in The Railroad and Engineering Journal before collecting the works in 1894’s Progress in Flying Machines.
The latter book analyzed the technical aspects of the aviation pioneers and became a guide for many engineers, including the Wright Brothers.
In 1895, Chanute, working with civil and mechanical engineer Augustus M. Herring and William Avery, designed and built his own gliders ranging from one- to six-wing varieties that included his highly successful bi-plane type. These were based on his own designs, as well as those of German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal, testing them just east of the what would later become Gary, Indiana.
By experimenting, he determined that extra lift could be achieved without too much added weight by adding more wings stacked upon each other. This was based on an 1866 theory proposed by Francis Wenham, a British engineer.
Chanute invented a strut-wire bracing based on the Pratt truss from his bridge-building days, and would be used on motorized bi-planes in the future.
In 1896, he and Herring built a bi-plane glider, with wings made of muslin that shone with numerous coats of varnish to provide strength. The wing frames were made of a thin wood strengthened by wire struts.
The truss system of the glider was similar to that utilized by Chanute when he was building bridges like the Hannibal Bridge in Kansas City.
Parallel bars hung at right angles 0.91-meters (3-feet) under the wings for the operator to hold onto and to allow body shifting to provide rudimentary steering capabilities.
The wings were 2.44-meters (8-feet) long x 0.91-meters (3-feet) wide apiece. For balance, a tail was attached to the bi-plane glider, made of similar materials.
During 1896 and 1897, Chanute and his team tested many different forms of glider, including the Katydid, a multi-wing modular glider with wings that could be easily moved for experimentation. The Katydid’s frame was made of spruce wood, with its surface covered in varnished Japanese silk.
It weighed 15.2-kilograms (33.5-pounds) with a supporting front surface of 13.3-square meters (143.5-square feet).
Chanute was quite friendly with a lot of other aviation pioneers like: Gabriel Voisin (see Wills’s card #37), Louis Blériot (see Wills’s card #38), Albert Santos Dumont (see Wills’s card #8 and #33) and the Wright Brothers (see Wills’s card #35) with whom he encouraged and visited their Kitty Hawk camp in 1901, 1902 and 1903. In fact, the Write Brothers and Chanute corresponded via 100s of letters between 1900 and 1910.
However, Chanute was his own man and had no problem in disagreeing with an aviation technology the Wright Brothers proposed for flight.
In a newspaper interview he said: “I admire the Wrights. I feel friendly toward them for the marvels they have achieved; but you can easily gauge how I feel concerning their attitude at present by the remark I made to Wilbur Wright recently. I told him I was sorry to see they were suing other experimenters and abstaining from entering the contests and competitions in which other men are brilliantly winning laurels. I told him that in my opinion they are wasting valuable time over lawsuits which they ought to concentrate in their work. Personally, I do not think that the courts will hold that the principle underlying the warping tips can be patented.”
However, Chanute in a letter to Wilbur Wright on January 23, 1910, says that the comments in the media were not at all accurate. To read that letter, check out THIS website.
Despite his attempt at clarification, his relationship with the Wrights did not improve… and then he died on November 232, 1910. But not one to hold a grudge after his passing, Wilbur Wright wrote an eulogy which was read at his funeral.
I notice that the Wright’s didn’t attend, but in their defense, it’s possible they were simply unable to travel to his funeral in time.
At his death he was hailed as the father of aviation and the heavier-than-air flying machine, so much so, that the U.S. government named its air base in Illinois the Chanute Flying Field – though it was decommissioned in 1993 – and later turned into an aviation museum.
The town of Chanute, Kansas, however, remains named after him.
Anyhow… so WHY is Octave Chanute so important to aviation? Well… thanks to the success he achieved with his bi-plane glider, the bi-plane became the accepted form when for all would-be aviation designers such as the Wright Brothers.
And even though that bi-wing form would later be discouraged for its inefficiencies, it still paved the way for every plane that followed and will follow.
Besides… Back in the 1890s, Chanute was indeed flying the most advanced aircraft in the world.