Octave Chanute to Wilbur Wright

Chicago, May 14, 1910

I am in bad health and threatened with nervous exhaustion, had to go to New Orleans for a change in March, and am now to sail for Europe on the 17th of this month. Your letter of April 28th was gratifying, for I own that I felt very much hurt by your letter of January 29th, which I thought both unduly angry and unfair as well as unjust.

I have never given out the impression, either in writing or speech, that you had taken up aeronautics at my instance or were, as you put it, pupils of mine. I have always written and spoken of you as original investigators and worthy of the highest praise. How much I may have been of help I do not know, I have never made any claims in that respect, but I may confess that I have sometimes thought that you did not give me as much credit as I deserved. I sent you some clippings1 by Mr. Knabenshue showing how the same interview which grated on you in the World appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and one of the foreign clippings in which you were represented as speaking disparagingly of myself. I gave the latter no credence, being aware how newspaper reporters made mountains out of molehills, yet the question arose in my mind whether there had been a molehill. I am sure that in my own case there has never been a molehill of disparagement of your achievements or claim that I was entitled to a part of the credit. Whatever other impressions have got abroad originated with persons who know of our own intimate relations or others who may have felt a certain amount of jealousy at your success. I feel sure that investigation will convince you of the accuracy of the above statements.

The difference in opinion between us, i.e., whether the warping of the wings was in the nature of a discovery by yourselves, or had already been proposed and experimented by others, will have to be passed upon by others, but I have always said that you are entitled to immense credit for devising apparatus by which it has been reduced to successful practice.

I hope, upon my return from Europe, that we will be able to resume our former relations.

1 Pasted to the original of this letter at this point is a slip of paper bearing the following notation by Orville Wright: "See L'Agrophile of April 1903, pp. 81 86. Wilbur never saw this. I saw it for the first time . . . when the April 1903 issue was given to me by Fish, Richardson, & Neave, July 1925. O. W. I did not read the above referred to publication and know its contents until 1938."

The Ae'rophile item cited is the report, "Diner Conf6rence du 2 avril 1903. M. Chanute A I'A6ro Club." Precisely what Chanute said is not known, but a very complete idea of his remarks can be formed by comparing the "Diner Conf& rence" account with the piece by Archdeacon, "M. Chanute A Paris," in La Locomotion, Apr. 11, 1903, and with Chanute's article, "La Navigation a6rienne aux ttats Unis," in L'Airophile, Aug. 1903. (Both of the latter are translated in Appendix IV, B and C, in vol. 1 of the present work.)

The following is a translation of the pertinent passages of the "Diner Conference" reported in L'Aerophile, April 1903:

"Mr. Chanute . . . related his memorable works dating back to 1896, and whimsically described the experiments in gliding flight carried out by him or by the brothers Wright with his modified apparatus. . . .

"Now here is how Mr. Chanute entered into relations with the Wright brothers, his present devoted collaborators. In 1900, the Wright brothers, bicycle manufacturers, at Dayton (Ohio), wrote to Mr. Chanute to ask him for some details about his experiments. They desired to renew them but with sport only as an object. Mr. Chanute very willingly furnished them the information they wanted, and Messrs. Wright brothers then had constructed, on his data, machines similar to those of Mr. Chanute, with which they thereupon experimented with real success.

"In 1901, new experiments of Messrs. Wright, witnessed by Mr. Chanute, produced better results, which were incorporated in an address delivered to the Society of Civil Engineers of Chicago, of which Mr. Chanute was, at that period, president.

"Then, in 1902, the brothers Wright had still better success. Their machine was much larger than the early machine of Mr. Chanute; it measured 9 meters in span, 1.5 in. in chord, and the two surfaces were 1.42 in. apart. The Wright brothers had, in addition, brought about two important modifications of the conditions of prior experiments. First, they had placed a rudder at the front, a member which acted much more efficiently for vertical control than the old rear rudder. This latter rudder, or rear 'tail flag,' was itself replaced by a vertical rudder. Further, and this was the essential point, the experimenter was placed prone rather than standing, which reduced by h the resistance which he presented to the air. Mr. Chanute had seen very clearly the advantage of this position of the aviator, but out of prudence he had not dared to recommend it. . . .

". . . Messrs. Wright are soon going to renew their experiments and hope to get to the point of attempting soaring flight. The flight of soaring birds requires an ascending wind of 3* to 4*.

"If, as he hopes, these experiments give good results, Mr. Chanute said that it will then be time to equip the machine with a mechanical motor driving a propeller which will continually renew the impulsion necessary for flight, instead of utilizing the single, limited impulsion given by a man's arm and simply continued and prolonged by the action of gravity on the system. . . .

". . . In order to obtain this last result [maintenance of equilibrium], Lilienthal caused the center of gravity to be altered by shifting the position of his body. As he was upright this required continual contortiong and acrobatics within the skill of few experimenters.

"On the contrary, with the machines of Mr. Chanute, modified by Messrs. Wright, the aviator controls direction in the horizontal plane by operating two cords which act by warping the right or left side of the wing and by deflecting at the same time the rear vertical rudder. Vertical direction is obtained by the movement of the front horizontal rudder. . . .

". . . In conclusion, said Mr. Chanute, I have had no other merit than that of taking up the experiments of Lilienthal at the point where death overtook him and of perfecting them as best I could, until others, more fortunate, take up my work in turn and carry it little by little to the perfect result. Progress in the sciences, and above all in aeronautics, is made, in fact, by successive stages. I shall be too happy if I have been able to contribute, however little, to advance the question, to hasten the solution of this great and difficult problem which impassions our whole era."

The disclosure of the Wright system of lateral control contained in the Airophile report of Chanute's lecture was not cited by the German Patent Office in nullifying the principal claim of the Wrights' German patent. This is strange in view of the citation of a slightly later, more condensed report of the same speech in L'Aironaute, May 1903, pp. 102 104. See Wright Brothers to the Editor, Scientific American, Mar. 14, 1912.