Octave Chanute and the Fostering of Flight


Octave Chanute

Octave Chanute

I have long been interested in Octave Chanute (1832-1910), whose fingerprints were all over every serious effort, and some that were not so serious, to fly between about 1890 and his death in 1910.  Not that he was the leader in aeronautical research, but he served as a powerful communication mechanism between various experimenters and a collector and purveyor of technical information about the challenge of flight. I suspect that every innovation has at least one person who acts in this capacity, as a conduit for information and ideas and a cheerleader for those engaged in research.

Chanute had a fascinating life. He was a civil engineer who came to the U.S. from Paris as a young man, became a naturalized American citizen, and spent his professional career in Chicago designing and building bridges and supervising of railway construction. He became interested in the possibilities of aviation about 1875 and when he retired from active engineering as a wealthy man in 1889 he investigated it full-time.

Chanute really began a second career by devoting himself to solving the problems of flight. In typical engineering fashion of step-by-step investigation, Chanute assembled all known data on the science into a single synthesis and catalogued its problems. Very early he began building a community of researchers, organized symposia, and served as the central clearing house for information on the subject. His approach was a model of collegial engineering, as opposed to the proprietary approach taken by most corporations. Chanute deeply believed that the advancement of flight science must be the work of many. He corresponded internationally, and encouraged the pioneers, including the Wright brothers of whom he was a special friend and mentor. He sought no patents on his inventions and gave his findings openly to all. The Wright brothers used his research when they designed their aircraft.

Chanute, for instance, advised Wilbur Wright to find a sandy place, with strong prevailing winds, to lessen the problem of landing and of moving the vehicles from the point of landing back to the point of takeoff. This sparked the brothers’ decision to journey from their native Dayton, Ohio, to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the conditions Chanute recommended existed nearly year round.

I was surprised to learn that he talked the World Columbian Exposition in 1892 to allow him to organize a symposium on flight at the world’s fair in Chicago. In 1894, he published the papers from this symposium as Progress in Flying Machines; it was was the first such collection dedicated to the advance of aviation.

Chanute with his glider at Lake Michigan.

Chanute with his glider at Lake Michigan.

Chanute undertook glider research studies on the sand dunes at Lake Michigan not far from Chicago in the 1890s, but his efforts here were never as advanced as those by Otto Lilienthal in Germany. What set him apart from others engaged in experimentation was his collection of everything he could find on the subject, corresponding with virtually everyone who was engaged in this research, and freely sharing what he learned through this process with all his other correspondents. That web of communication that he maintained was his notable contribution to the cause of flight, and while Octave Chanute is not well-known he deserves greater recognition for this work.

Chanute’s personal investigations into the problems of flight measurably advanced knowledge about powered flight in the 1890s, and he shared that knowledge with the Wrights as they undertook the research that led to their successful 1903 test flights. The brothers corresponded with Chanute throughout their preliminary research, seeking his counsel and incorporating his ideas into their designs for an airplane. Once successful, Chanute even visited the Wrights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, while they were testing their planes.

The first flight of the Wright Brothers, December 17, 1903.

The first flight of the Wright Brothers, December 17, 1903.

No one proved a more effective advocate for the Wright brothers after their famous first flight than Octave Chanute. Chanute steadfastly supported the brothers and remained their confidante until patent disputes erupted over aeronautical technology. Chanute broke off his correspondence with them at that time because he disagreed with their desire to control the technology of flight. For him, technical information was a public commodity, and he believed that the ability to fly would usher in a new age of enlightenment that he believed the Wrights were thwarting. The relation was mended when Chanute died in 1910 and the brothers attended his funeral. Wilbur Wright delivered his eulogy.

There is a good book by Tom D. Crouch, A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane, 1875-1905, that has t he story of Octave Chanute in it. I commend that book to all interested in this subject. I’m also curious about others at the center of a web of technological innovation. Are there others who played the same role as Octave Chanute for other technologies? What about telecommunications, transportation, medical technology, and the like? I welcome your thoughts.

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3 Responses to Octave Chanute and the Fostering of Flight

  1. guillaume says:

    Great post, thanks! Simine Short’s book on Chanute is also interesting, but Tom Crouch’s definitive bio of the Wrights really helps contextualize things beyond the US. What I like best about Chanute, is what you describe as his wish to make the science of flight accessible to all. Eons ago I was in the Technisches Museum Wien archives, and read through the Wilhelm Kress papers. Kress is a kind of unhappy Austrian pioneer who tried and failed to fly around 1901 on a lake near Vienna. The letters Chanute wrote to him are filled with information (even pictures of gulls Chanute took to illustrate the lifting process,) encouragement, and gentle criticism (he warns him notably about the trouble with designing a flying boat).

    As for other people in the mould of Chanute, I wonder whether someone like Paul Jaray fits the bill, not only for airships, but for automobiles? (The whole streamlining business.)

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    • launiusr says:

      Guillaume, this is great information. Thanks for sharing it. Juray is a good fit for this type of communication central. Thanks.

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  2. launiusr says:

    Simone Short offered these comments, for which I thank her. I’m very appreciative of corrections.

    Just read your blog and comments on Chanute. You may be interested in seeing the link to my book on Chanute: http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/56shm7qa9780252036316.html

    You write:

    “Chanute really began a second career by devoting himself to solving the problems of flight.”
    I believe that aeronautics was his third career, the second one being wood preservation.

    “In 1894, he published the papers from this symposium as Progress in Flying Machines; it was was the first such collection dedicated to the advance of aviation.”
    “Progress in Flying Machines” was a series of articles published in the American Engineer between 1891 and 1894. The symposium papers were a different publication. Both books are available at

    I do not see that Chanute broke off his correspondence with the Wrights, I think it was the other way around.

    “The relation was mended when Chanute died in 1910 and the brothers attended his funeral. Wilbur Wright delivered his eulogy.”
    There is no record that the relationship between Chanute and the Wrights was mended. And after reading the last two letters from Chanute to Wilbur, I doubt that very much. There is also no record that the Chanute family telegraphed the Wrights informing them of Octave’s death. There is also no mention in any of the material at the Chanute family or the literature that “the brothers attended the funeral.” The family arranged a Memorial Service, and submitted this information to the wire service, inviting every one to come who wanted to pay their respect. Many of the local engineers came, including Wilbur Wright from Dayton and William Glassford. They were the only out-of-town aviation related people in attendance. Chanute’s funeral took place a few days later, but it was very private. Only Bill Avery attended beside the family.

    Other then that, I enjoyed reading your blog and I look forward to meet you sometime in the future.

    Once againI appreciate Simone Short comments.

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