December 17, 1903

The first powered, controlled, sustained flight by a heavier-than-air aircraft took place on Kill Devil Hill, Kittyhawk, North Carolina. They needed a place with steady wind, away from people, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina provided both.

It wasn’t much by modern standards, but it started a revolution. People had dreamed of flight for thousands of years, and gliders had been around for a while. The problem was launching them. Birds self-launch. People in gliders could do that off of hill sides, if everything went right, but it wasn’t the same as true flight. Hot-air balloons could drift with the wind, and had been around for over a century. Again, control was a problem, as was fire. Gas balloons came next, hydrogen at first, but a light-weight propulsion unit remained, let us say, challenging to find.

Everyone remembers the Wright Brothers. Charlie Taylor is remembered only by rabid aviation buffs, and mechanics. Charlie Taylor created the engine that the Wrights needed. It was . . . rough. It had four in-line iron cylinders on an aluminium case. The compression ratio left a lot to be desired, and the water-cooled engine lacked pumps and other accessories. Steel crankshafts linked to the propellers via chains, one of which had a twist in order to make the props counter-rotating. The props turned relatively slowly. The life of the engine wasn’t all that long, but it worked and worked well enough for powered, controlled flight.

Charlie Taylor delivered the engine in six weeks from order to test run. It was under-weight, produced the required thrust power, and was machined entirely by hand! No one remembers him, unless you are an aircraft mechanic. The FAA also now has a Charlie Taylor Award, for the mechanic or maintenance inspector of the year, usually given for lifetime accomplishment.

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13 thoughts on “December 17, 1903

  1. All the more remarkable when one considers the Ford Model T was five years away. In 1903 you couldn’t order a lightweight engine from an automobile maker and get off the ground.

  2. Only ~50 years since Napoleon III used a very expensive aluminum flatware set at state dinners. Aluminum was still a high-tech material in infancy. Light weight but probably a soft alloy (2000 series eq?), so low compression and low stress were important. It worked and proved the concept, so work from there. Now you have the right questions for the metallurgists.

  3. A later development by Charlie Taylor was the engine for the 1911 Vin Fiz flyer, the first to go coast to coast (75 landings, with 16 of them crashes) in 3 months.

    I belonged to an engine modeler club in California, and one of the members was commissioned to build a model of the engine used. This went into a replica of the Vin Fiz (both at 1:1 scale), and this was (might still be?) displayed at the Hiller Museum in San Carlos, CA. Never saw the aircraft, but the engine was impressive running. We started it with a test fan during a club meeting. Hand-cranking an inertial starter is an interesting experience.

    Wiki says it was rated at 35 HP. for more on the original.

    FWIW, he gathered construction prints of the engine from various places, with the most useful drawings from a Danish licensee.

  4. I stand in awe of machinists, having proved again this past week that I can’t put a handful of holes in metal in the right places. I need to try again, and this time I will double-pilot them.

    • I enjoy sheet metal work and engine stuff. Trying to machine parts using lathes and the like? Far beyond my skill set. I’m more of a hand-tool, bending brake, and drill-press type of worker, not a true machinist.

      • Still beyond me, though I can’t have much of that in my apartment. I’m going to make another try at those bracket parts, and double-pilot the holes this time.

    • Welcome to my world. I always end up with holes slightly off when drilling in metal, usually even when using a drill press.

      • If given my choice, I prefer engine work, then wood work. If engine parts warp or bend as you are fitting them into place, it’s not because YOU used the wrong table to calculate stretch in the metal. OTOH, sometimes it is a lot easier to stop a crack and patch sheet metal than it is to repair a cracked piece of furniture. (Don’t ask, and don’t look at the base of the glider rocker, and don’t ask why it only rocks backwards, not forwards.)

  5. If anybody ever comes to town to visit the Air Force Museum and the Wright Bicycle Shop (one of them), make sure to go downtown and visit The Engineers Club, too (usually has visitors’ hours for their little museum, with a guided tour). It is nerd heaven, and was built by the Wrights and other engineers to be extremely comfortable and have a good engineering library. It has some very precarious-looking front stairs that are actually extremely sturdy, with risers and steps the exact correct shape and size for comfort and speed. And so on. It’s a very freaky place, and they turned their African trophy room into their African trophy room/recharging and computing area/bar.

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