Today, we meet the man who brought engineering to
flying machines. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
The American glider pioneer
Octave Chanute and his assistants made their
flights during the summers of 1896 and '97. He was
64 when they went to the sand dunes along southern
Lake Michigan. They'd built, and they flew, the
most advanced gliders before the Wright Brothers.
One of them flew almost 400 feet. But Chanute
wasn't cast in the mold of the early inventors of
flight. He played a different kind of role.
He was a self-taught civil engineer, and a very
good one. He'd become chief cngineer of the Erie
Railroad by the time he was 41. Chanute's interest
in flight began shortly after that. But he was a
professional engineer, and -- more often than not
-- people interested in flight were simply called
In 1885 Chanute went out on a limb. Surely flight
was the province of professional engineers, he
argued. So he organized a session on flight in the
Mechanical Engineering part of the meeting of the
American Academy for the Advancement of Science. He
managed to get Robert
Thurston, the most eminent mechanical engineer
of the age, to write a paper for the session.
But the centerpiece of Chanute's session -- his
keynote speaker -- was a disaster. He was a famous
builder of model birds, and he served up bad
science mixed with unbelievable theory. But no
matter. Chanute had flung the issue of flight into
the world of respectable science and engineering.
From then on, he became a one-man clearing house
for the international community of would-be fliers.
For years, Chanute sorted false claims form valid
ones. He sifted among designs. He contributed his
own money to other people's experiments. He labored
selflessly and honestly to put humans into the sky.
He brought a kind of honor to a field fraught with
chicanery. When he finally flew his own gliders,
they weren't really inventions. They were public
demonstrations of the state of the art by the grand
old man of aeronautics.
The Wright Brothers wrote to Chanute in 1900, when
he was 68. It didn't take him long to see what
dazzling genius those two quiet young men
represented. He sent his own assistants to North
Carolina to work with them. By 1902 the Wrights
were making 600-foot flights in fully controllable
gliders. The airplane was finally ready for its
engines. The next year they took off and flew.
When the Wrights tangled in patent disputes,
Chanute broke off with them. For him, technical
information was a public commodity, and he hated
secrecy. The relation was mending when Chanute died
in 1910, and well it should have been. The Wrights
and Chanute were all honorable men. They were the
two opposite faces of engineering -- invention and
expertise -- both at their very best.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds