Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Great Moments in Aviation, Part VII

We are coming to a point in the story where everything seems to be happening at once. That is mainly due to the fact that none of this is happening in a vacuum. For most of aviation's history to date, progress has been due to the lone work of a genius here, a tinker there, all working in isolation. This would all change in the 1890s. And in my opinion, that change is mostly due to the work of one man: Octave Chanute.

Octave Chanute was a French-born engineer who had already made a name for himself working on railroad and bridge projects all across America. He came to an interest in aviation relatively late in life. In 1890, he retired from his rail and bridge practice to study aviation full-time. He spent the next several years studying everything he could find about the subject, and in 1894, he published the first comprehensive index of aviation research to date, Progress in Flying Machines. Also, in 1893, he organized an aviation conference at the Columbian Exposition. Chanute had won enough respect for his earlier work that he could not be dismissed as a crackpot. If as eminent an engineer as Chanute thought it possible, well, there's probably a decent chance that there's something to this "flying machine" stuff after all...

One of Chanute's more important contributions was the refinement of the biplane form. He applied his bridge experience to the problem, and devised a structural bracing system that was both strong and lightweight.

But his most important contribution by far was the fact that he maintained a correspondence with everyone who was anyone in the field. He shared everything he knew freely, encouraging other experimenters to take up ideas that he'd had. Ideas began to fly thick and fast. Blind alleys were quickly identified and cut off. Gliders were built with successively better and better control methods. By the turn of the century, several projects were underway that could result in the long-sought flying machine. It was no longer a question if man would fly. The question became who and when. Three of Chanute's pen-pals were in the running. All would eventually succeed, but only one of them could be first.

No comments: