An experimenter in glider flight and design, a communicator who helped early experimenters exchange information, and an author who inspired many aviation pioneers.
Octave Chanute was born in France but emigrated to the United States in 1938 and studied civil engineering through an apprenticeship program. Working with railroads, he became one of the most successful engineers in the United States and designed the first bridge across the Missouri River. Chanute became interested in the challenge of flight in the 1870’s and corresponded extensively with aviation experimenters, such as Otto Lilienthal in Germany. During the 1890’s, he designed, built, and tested his own gliders in hundreds of flights on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Although Chanute learned much from his own experiments, he is best remembered for the encouragement he gave to others and for his role as a communicator. He published many articles on flight in engineering journals and magazines of the time, as well as a book, Progress in Flying Machines, in which he reviewed the work of past and then-current flight researchers. Through his personal correspondence, he led many aviation pioneers into the field. Wilbur and Orville Wright read Chanute’s book and corresponded frequently with him as they worked on their glider and airplane designs. Chanute visited the Wrights at their camp at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and gave them advice and encouragement as they chased the goal of powered flight.
It was Chanute who, in Paris in 1903, first revealed to European aviation researchers that the Wright brothers were on the verge of success. He published detailed accounts of that success within a few weeks of their first flights. A couple of years later, in an apparent effort to motivate the Wrights toward a more public exhibition of their success, Chanute informed Orville and Wilbur that the Europeans were nearing success in building a flying machine. The Wrights, who had been somewhat secretive about their post-1903 experiments in hopes of selling profitable airplanes to the military, rejected his advice, responding that there was no one in the world, not even Chanute himself, who was capable of building a flying machine within the next ten years. The first successful European flight took place the following month.
Anderson, John D., Jr. A History of Aerodynamics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. An excellent review of the work of all who have contributed to advances in aerodynamics. Chanute, Octave. Progress in Flying Machines. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1998. A reprint of the classic work that inspired the Wright brothers and others. Roseberry, C. R. Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991. This excellent biography of Glenn Curtiss includes extensive reference to Chanute and his correspondence with the Wright brothers.
History of human flight
Octave Chanute’s glider experiments of the 1890’s helped pave the way for the Wright brothers’successes in powered flight.