Five Smart Men Who Didn’t Invent the Airplane

Jan. 1, 1990
The world has long recognized the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903 as a remarkable achievement. For a fuller appreciation of their accomplishment, one need only consider the cases of five smart men who didn’t invent the airplane.

Their names were well-known: Thomas Edison, Hiram Maxim, Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Langley, and Octave Chanute. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, all were world-class inventors.

Experts in widely different disciplines, they all came to hold a common belief–that human flight was possible. Some would dabble briefly with the idea. Others would invest years. None would succeed in building a workable flying machine.

The aeronautic investigations of Thomas Edison were the first and briefest. By the 1880s, he had invented the phonograph and perfected the incandescent light bulb. He was looking for new challenges.

His interest in aeronautics may have been sparked by a child’s toy known as the Penaud helicopter. Alphonse Penaud of France had applied a rubber-band engine to an earlier toy, the Chinese top, to produce flying models. They performed beautifully, but Penaud’s attempt to build a larger, man-carrying machine was frustrated by lack of a workable, lightweight engine.

Edison was intrigued. He decided to find out exactly how much mechanical power was needed to make the operation of a “helicoptal aeroplane” practical. Characteristically, he began in the laboratory. He attached various types of rotors to the end of a vertical shaft powered by an electric motor and measured their lifting power with a platform scale. Edison concluded that it would take an engine weighing no more than three or four pounds per horsepower to do the trick.

Internal Combustion

Edison devised an internal-combustion engine of sorts. It was fueled by ticker tape treated with nitrates to produce a continuous thread of a type of explosive known as guncotton. It was fed into the cylinder and exploded with an electric charge. The arrangement worked fairly well, but, during a trial, an entire roll of tape was ignited and exploded. One of Edison’s assistants was burned, and Edison’s hair was singed.

The explosion alone may have discouraged Edison from pursuing the problem of flight. But Edison also shied away from inventions with no commercial promise. In the 1880s, the prospect of a market for a flying machine must have seemed too remote to be worth the effort. His interest in flight continued, but never again did Edison actively pursue airplane projects.

Not long after, another inventor, a rival of Edison’s, was seriously studying ways to take to the air. Hiram Maxim, son of a backwoods Maine farmer, had gone to Canada to avoid the Civil War. By 1866, he had returned to New England, taken a job with an engineering firm, and begun to apply his talent for invention.

In 1878, Maxim became Chief Engineer of the United States Electric Lighting Co. and worked to perfect the incandescent light bulb. When Edison beat him to it, Maxim gave up his post and went to Europe, where he remained the rest of his life. It was there, in 1883, that he invented the automatic-firing gun that changed the face of warfare and made him rich and famous.

While in England, Maxim began his investigation of flight. By 1894, he had poured 20,000 pounds sterling into the project. The result was a huge contraption with a main wing 110 feet long and four feet wide. It had elevators fore and aft and two propellers driven by steam engines, each of which generated 360 horsepower. The machine was mounted on a half-mile railroad track that Maxim had laid out on his estate in Kent.

Maxim did not expect or intend to fly to any great height. At three and one-half tons, his machine was unlikely to set any altitude records. At this point, Maxim said, he was interested only in measuring the thrust of propellers and lift of wings.

One day in 1894, Maxim climbed aboard his aerial locomotive, eased the throttle forward, and headed down the track. The machine lifted a few inches from the track, but broke through one of the guardrails Maxim had installed along the track to restrain the air machine. Maxim shut off all power and retired from the field of aviation. Like Edison, he concluded that a practical machine would have to await perfection of the internal-combustion engine.

One inventor who went further than either Edison or Maxim was Samuel Pierpont Langley. Langley worked for a time as an engineer and architect, but his consuming interest was astronomy. In 1867, he became Director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pennsylvania and professor of astronomy at the Western University. For his study of solar radiation, Langley invented an electric thermometer, known as a bolometer, to measure the heat in various bands of the sun’s spectrum.

Langley might have spent the remainder of his life in astronomy had he not been captivated in 1886 by a lecture on bird flight. He built a whirling-arm device with which to study the aerodynamics of birds’ wings and other shapes. When he became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 1887, he continued the experiments.

In 1891, Langley published his findings in a pamphlet titled “Experiments in Aerodynamics.” In 1893, he presented a paper on “The Internal Work of the Wind” at an International Conference on Aerial Navigation in Chicago. The chairman was Octave Chanute, yet another inventor. Born in Paris and raised in New York City, Chanute was a largely self-educated engineer.

In his youth, Chanute had worked for a number of western railroads but made a hobby of collecting all the information available on human flight. In 1863, he had become Chief Engineer of the Chicago and Alton Railroad. He decided it was time to put away his notes on flying and give his full attention to business. In the years that followed, he made a great reputation by building railroad bridges, including one at Kansas City that became the first to span the Missouri River. He also designed the world-famous Chicago Stockyards.

By 1889, however, Chanute once again had the time and the money to renew his interest in aeronautics. He dug out his notes, updated the information, and wrote a series of articles later published in a book titled Progress in Flying Machines.

New Forms of Power

While Chanute was still writing about the experiments of others, Langley was back in Washington trying to develop new forms of power for heavier-than-air flying machines. By 1893, he had flown models powered by carbonic-acid gas and air. Later versions of his models were fitted with tiny steam engines, their boilers flash-heated with gasoline flames. The following year, Langley built a catapult on a houseboat floating on the Potomac River, to be used to launch large models.

On May 6, 1896, Langley launched his Model No. 5 near Quantico, Va. It flew half a mile before it ran out of fuel and landed on the water. That fall, Langley flew his Model No. 6 for about three quarters of a mile. Soon, he announced that, having shown the practicality of mechanical flight, he would leave the commercial and practical development of the idea to others.

The flight was witnessed by members of the Smithsonian staff. Also looking on with great interest was Langley’s friend Alexander Graham Bell, who by now was providing some financial support for the experiments and beginning to catch the flying fever. If Langley was ready to quit, his friend Bell was just getting started.

Bell’s Kites, Chanute’s Gliders

Scottish-born, Bell had come to America to use his father’s system of Visible Speech for training the deaf. His study of sound and vibration led eventually to his epoch-making invention of the telephone. By 1893, Bell had become a US citizen and was experimenting with kites in Nova Scotia.

Chanute also had begun active experiments with flying machines. While Langley was flying his models over the Potomac, Chanute was testing man-carrying gliders on the sand dunes of Indiana near Lake Michigan.

His first glider was a cumbersome, five-winged affair. When it proved too unwieldy, he peeled off two wings and flew with three. He removed another wing, and the biplane glider was born. To offset the effect of wind gusts, Chanute fitted the wings with springs so that they could swing backward when wind hit them and then return to normal when it died down. This notion of achieving stability with movable wings became an obsession with him and influenced his later designs.

Chanute continued his gliding experiments in 1897 and described them in that year’s Aeronautical Annual, a yearbook published by James Means of Boston.

In 1898, world events drew Langley back to aeronautical experimentation. The battleship USS Maine was blown up in Havana harbor, and war with Spain loomed. The US government became interested in flight for military purposes. A joint Army-Navy board recommended that Langley be given $50,000 to continue his experiments in manned flight. President McKinley formally asked him to build a test machine.

With help from a young engineer, Charles Manly, Langley began designing a full-size version of his tandem wing models and a lightweight gasoline engine to power it. In addition to their work on this craft, known as the” Aerodrome,” the two began building a one-quarter-size model for the purpose of testing a new barge-mounted launching platform.

Meanwhile, Bell still was designing and flying highly unusual kites in Nova Scotia. In 1899, he built a box kite more than fourteen feet long, but could find no wind strong enough to lift it. Though disappointed, he continued to work with kites of various sizes and shapes until he hit on the idea of building a kite composed of tetrahedral cells. When complete, the kite looked like a hive built by bees with a poor sense of geometry, but it flew. Bell dreamed of building a powered version large enough to carry a man.

With the turn of the century, experimentation started to pick up speed. In mid-1901, Chanute visited Chuckey City, Tenn., where he was having a new glider built by Edward C. Huffaker. Huffaker had worked for both Chanute and Langley. Chanute’s new glider was made of paper tubing instead of wood spars. The curvature of the wings was designed to vary with changes in the wind. In the end, however, it proved too weak to fly and crumpled when the paper tubes accidentally became soaked in the summer rains.

In the fall of 1902, Chanute tried again, this time with the help of another assistant, Augustus M. Herring. Chanute had had his multiple-winged glider rebuilt and had a new glider made by Charles Lamson of California. Herring tested both, but neither proved successful. After ten days of experimentation, Chanute ended his tests without having produced a workable machine.

Shortly afterward, Chanute stopped in Washington to visit Langley, who was close to finishing work on his Aerodrome. Chanute was no doubt excited by what he saw. By the summer of 1903, Langley was ready to test the one-quarter-size model of his Aerodrome on the specially prepared launch platform.

On August 8, 1903, the model was launched and flew erratically for about 1,000 feet. The problem was with the engine. Someone had overfilled the fuel tank, and gasoline had gotten into the air intake. In every other aspect the flight was considered a success, and Langley gave the go-ahead for Manly to test the full-size Aerodrome when conditions were right.

Though problems continued to plague the experiment, the Langley-Manly machine finally was ready. On October 7, 1903, Manley climbed aboard and the catapult sent the machine down the track. To Langley’s supreme disappointment, the Aerodrome plunged into the water about fifty feet beyond the houseboat. Langley’s official explanation was that one of the Aerodrome’s guy posts had snagged on the launching platform

The machine was repaired, and Manly made another try on December 8, 1903. The Aerodrome was launched, rose briefly, and hovered for a moment. Then it slipped backward and fell into the Potomac. Manly was fished from the river’s icy waters, and Langley’s attempt to fly came to an end.

The Wrights’ Success

Nine days later, on December 17, 1903, Octave Chanute received a telegram from Katherine Wright in Dayton, Ohio. She relayed some dramatic news: Her two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who had worked extensively with Chanute over several years, had just made four successful manned flights in an aircraft. The race to build “the first” airplane was over.

News of the Wrights’ achievement affected the inventors differently. Edison readily hailed the Wrights’ achievement. The great inventor himself made no claim to having advanced the progress of aviation. After testing the lifting power of rotors and tinkering briefly with his guncotton engine, he had returned to more familiar ground. Even after fixed-wing aircraft became commonplace, he retained his belief in vertical flight. “Whatever progress the aeroplane might make,” he said, “the helicopter will come to be taken up by the advanced students of aeronautics.”

In stark contrast, the flamboyant Hiram Maxim made outlandish boasts about his own aeronautical achievements. His main distinction, in truth, is that he wasted more money to produce fewer results than almost any other experimenter. After his brief tests with the steam-powered biplane in 1894, he did no more experimenting until 1910, when he built another biplane that worked only a little better. By the time of his death in 1916, he had accumulated 122 US and 149 British patents, but he was vain and jealous of other inventors, especially of Edison, his old rival in the electric lighting business.

History fails to credit Bell with any major personal achievement in the field of aviation, though he did help foster successful experimentation by others. Well after the Wrights had flown under power, Bell continued to experiment with his peculiar, honeycomb kites in Nova Scotia. By December 1905, he had made one large enough to lift a 165-pound man. The flying machine he envisioned was to be a powered kite that could be towed into the air, travel at low speeds, and float to earth. By 1907, he had built such a machine, a fifty-two-foot-wide array of 3,300 tetrahedral cells arranged on an aluminum frame. Bell’s rig, the Cygnet, made its maiden flight in December 1907. Towed behind a boat, the Cygnet rose to an altitude of more than 150 feet. But the wind died, and the kite descended before the pilot could cast off the tow line. The Cygnet hit the water and was dragged behind the boat until it broke up.

Chanute had worked closely with the Wright brothers and was understandably pleased to get word of their success at Kitty Hawk. But his friendship with the Wrights was about to collapse. For years he had written and lectured on the progress of aviation. He had become a sort of clearinghouse for information on the state of the art. By 1903, the Wrights felt he was giving away too many details of their system. Later, under the pressure of patent lawsuits, Chanute’s relationship with the Wrights deteriorated even more. After an exchange of increasingly bitter letters, Wilbur wrote Chanute a conciliatory note in April 1910. That November, at age seventy-eight, Chanute died in Chicago.

The Wrights’ success doubtless added to Langley’s intense disappointment about the highly publicized failure of his Aerodrome a few days earlier. Langley might have taken comfort in the knowledge that his writings were among those the Wrights devoured when they first thought of flying. But his earlier work was discounted by the Wrights, who found errors in his data and flaws in his basic theories. Langley died in February 1906, little more than two years after his failure on the Potomac.

Between tours of active duty in World War II and the Korean War, Bruce D. Callander earned a B.A. in journalism at the University of Michigan. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, becoming Editor in 1972. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was” The Critical Twist” in the September 1989 issue.