The Wrights' Stuff
Tom Crouch’s excellent piece on the bicycle’s relationship to flying and airplanes (“How the Bicycle Took Wing,” Summer 1986) is another valuable contribution to a long-neglected segment of our history. When I was a boy in the 1920s, the conventional wisdom viewed the Wrights as unsophisticated repairmen who somehow got lucky in the quest for powered flight, a notion far from the reality of their having anticipated nearly every avenue of inquiry that has since come to characterize the design and development of aircraft.
In no way to diminish their singular achievement, I wish to suggest that you at least publish the name of the pioneer who designed and built the flier’s engine. I like to think that both Orville and Wilbur would be pleased to see a bit of the credit go his way. Since the engine must have in many respects been a true watershed, the designer must have been one of those few faced with a problem that nobody had ever solved before. Those who have been in a similar situation can appreciate the uncertainties, the difficulties, and even the splendor of achievement when the lonely process of creating this machine ended with a successful first flight.
Tom Crouch replies: The engine was built by Charles Taylor, a local Dayton machinist who had worked in the Wrights’ bicycle shop, but Orville Wright did most of the designing of it. It was, in fact, not a very sophisticated engine. Part of the genius of the Wright brothers was their ability to isolate real technical problems from imaginary ones. They spent years discovering how to build a plane that wouldn’t have to rely on very many horsepower and then simply used a crude engine based on internal-combustion technology that had been around for ten years. Samuel Langley, on the other hand, exhausted a great deal of time and energy developing an engine that produced four times as much power as the Wrights’ while weighing about the same, but for other reasons his plane never flew. The Wrights’ engine weighed about two hundred pounds including its load of fuel and delivered approximately twelve and a half horsepower in flight.