Europe Spreads Its Wings
On May 23, 1906, the U.S. Patent Office finally granted the Wright brothers Patent Number 821,393 for a Flying Machine. That accomplishment would prove to be enormously significant in the development of future aircraft and the aviation industry.
The Wright Patent was granted on May 23, 1906.
But otherwise, the year was not productive for the Wright brothers. The British military had expressed an interest in the Flyer III the year before. But the talks broke down in February because the Wrights refused to let Britain see an actual demonstration of the plane in flight. The French War Ministry, too, had begun to negotiate a contract with the Wrights. However, the $200,000 price tag for the Flyer III discouraged them, and the negotiations collapsed in the spring. By the end of the year, no buyers had been found.
Their supporter Octave Chanute warned the Wrights that the aviation world was catching up; in France particularly, aviation was moving forward rapidly. The Wrights slowly began to realize this and started talking with others interested in aviation who came to Dayton to see them. Among the visitors to Huffman Prairie in 1906, was a young man from Hammondsport, New YorkGlenn H. Curtiss. The Wrights learned that Curtiss was the engine-builder in Alexander Graham Bell's Aerial Experiment Association, but Curtiss did not yet have a keen interest in aviation. The meeting of these three in 1906 was the first contact between Curtiss and the Wrights. Many more would follow.
The Wrights slowly began to gain some recognition from the American aviation and science community. The newly formed Aero Club of America recognized the Wrights’ achievements, and the text of its resolution was reprinted in many newspapers. Scientific American, which had published several skeptical editorials, reversed itself and declared that the Wrights “…deserve the highest credit for having perfected the first flying machine.”
In Europe in 1906, however, the situation was different. There, the anti-Wright skeptics in the European aviation community had converted the press to their point of view. European newspapers, especially in France, were openly derisive, calling them bluffeurs (bluffers). The Paris edition of the New York Herald summed up Europe's opinion of the Wright brothers in an editorial on February 10, 1906: "The Wright have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It's easy to say, 'We have flown.'"
To spur aviation in Europe—especially in France—wealthy enthusiasts offered rich prizes. Ernest Archdeacon put up the Coupe d'Aviation Ernest Archdeacon, a silver trophy for the first person to fly a powered airplane 25 meters (80 feet). The Aéro-Club de France offered 1500 francs to the first person to fly 100 meters, or 330 feet. Archdeacon, along with Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe, established the Grand Prix d'Aviation, a 50,000 franc-prize to the first person to fly a one-kilometer (0.6 mile) circle.
Jacob Christian Ellehammer made a powered flight attached to a tethered pole in September 1906.
Most developments in aviation centered in Europe rather than in the United States. J.C.H. Ellehammer, the Danish inventor, made a circular hop of some 140 feet (42 meters) on the island of Lindholm in Denmark. But his machine was tethered to a central pole and was not even truly a real hop. Voison and Louis Blériot—a manufacturer of automotive components—designed and flew improved gliders. The American showman, Samuel F. Cody, flew a kite-glider with ailerons in Great Britain. His British Army Aeroplane No. 1 was the first aircraft to fly in England, on October 16, 1908. Ferber added a 12-horsepower (9-kilowatt) engine to his most successful glider to date, but it could not sustain flight. The Rumanian Trajan Vuia made a series of short hops in a monoplane powered by a carbolic acid motor. Leon Levavasseur perfected two light airplane engines of 24 and 50 horsepower (18 and 37 kilowatts) he named "Antoinette" motors after his daughter. These engines would become the mainstay of European aviation during its earliest years.
The Demoiselle was the world's first ultra-light airplane. It was largely constructed of bamboo. It was the first really successful plane built by Alberto Santos-Dumont and was popular with flying enthusiasts of the time. The prototype Demoiselle appeared in November 1907. The popular version of the plane debuted on March 6, 1909.
But it was Alberto Santos-Dumont who most captured Europe's attention. Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian living in France, was the son of a wealthy coffee-plantation owner and a talented engineer who began racing motorized tricycles, then turned to lighter-than-air flight. He built successful, but oddly shaped motorized dirigibles and flew over the rooftops of Paris in them. In 1901, he won the 50,000-franc Deustch Prize for flying around the Eiffel Tower within a 30-minute time limit. In 1904, he visited the St. Louis Exposition in the United States and saw demonstrations of Chanute's gliders. He heard about the work of the Wright brothers and, enthused, he turned his talents to powered aircraft.
In July of 1906, Santos-Dumont flight-tested his dirigible Airship No. 14 that had an odd-looking airplane suspended beneath it. Called the 14-bis ("14 encore"), this aircraft was a type de Wright, but the wings met in a sharp upwards angle or "dihedral" to give it stability. A pivoting box-kite assembly at the front served as both an elevator and a rudder. A 24-horsepower (18-kilowatt) Antoinette engine turned a single propeller that protruded from behind. The pilot stood upright in a wicker basket, much like a balloon pilot.
On September 13, 1906, Santos-Dumont rose off the ground for a brief hop of 23 feet (7 meters) and a hard landing. He repaired the aircraft, refitted it with a 50-horsepower (37-kilowatt) Antoinette and tried again. On October 23, he flew his 14-bis 198 feet (60 meters), winning the Archdeacon prize. He modified the craft again, adding ailerons and eliminating the rudder function of the front control surfaces. On November 12, he flew 726 feet (220 meters), winning the 1500-franc prize from the Aero-Club for the first 100-meter (328-foot) flight. No one cared that the craft was cumbersome and uncontrollable, or that Santos-Dumont abandoned the design forever a few months later. He had flown—in public—and the French cheered—they were the best! Some considered him the first person to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft by means of its own propulsion.
Santos-Dumont flew the 14-bis nearly 197 feet (60 meters) on October 23, 1906.
But the Wrights were not forgotten. Bell, in an interview with the Paris correspondent of the New York Herald, stated that Santos-Dumont had borrowed his ideas from the Wrights and that the brothers deserved credit for “solving the great problems of aeronautics.” This argument, and others like it, would prove important later when the Wrights became embroiled in their patent disputes.