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Octave Chanute—A Champion of Aviation

Octave Alexandré Chanute made outstanding contributions to aviation through his detailed descriptions of aeronautical accomplishments, his development of successful man-carrying gliders, and his advice and encouragement to others engaged in flight research.

Octave Alexandré Chanute

Octave Alexandré Chanute.

Born in Paris, France, on February 18, 1832, Chanute became a naturalized American citizen when he moved to the United States.   A self-taught civil engineer, he was a talented and highly successful professional who became known for his original designs and construction of complex bridges and railroad terminals. He began his career in railroad construction at the Hudson River Railroad in Ossining, New York, where he experimented in material preservation, which led to his invention of the method for pressure-treating wood with creosote that is still being used today. Chanute designed the first railroad bridge over the Missouri River and the Union stockyards in Chicago, Illinois, and Kansas City, Missouri.

Later, his experiments with gliders contributed to the science of flight, the areas of control systems and stability, efficiency of materials, and aircraft structural integrity and strength. Using his knowledge of braced-box-structure in bridge construction, he invented the familiar strut-wire-braced wing structure still used in biplane aircraft.

Chanute believed in a cooperative approach to the advancement of science. He acted as a clearinghouse for ideas relating to flight, which helped move the leadership in aviation from Europe to the United States. He corresponded internationally with others in the field and encouraged many–Gabriel Voisin, Louis Blériot, Maurice Farman, and the Wright brothers—in their efforts. He never patented his inventions and was happy to offer his findings to whoever seemed interested. His use of the term "aviation" resulted in its acceptance into everyday language.

In 1875, he visited Europe and learned of the extensive efforts there to develop mechanical flight. He became enthused by the attempts of others to glide and achieve powered flight. Thus, in 1889, at the age of 57, when he was able to retire from his engineering business, he began a second career as an aeronautical historian and champion of aviation. His considerable reputation as a prominent engineer gave significant respectability to the burgeoning field.

Chanute concentrated on developing solutions to the problems of flight with the same analytical style that had made him a successful engineer. He used a step-by-step approach in his investigations, first assembling and describing all known data and cataloging the problems he saw. Then he used his engineering knowledge to analyze the work of earlier experimenters. He wanted to eliminate their errors and to advance the science of flight by describing and analyzing their successes and failures.

His efforts resulted in a series of articles that first appeared in The Railroad and Engineering Journal from 1891 through 1893 and were then compiled in the classic book, Progress in Flying Machines, published in 1894. Filled with diagrams of flying machines, it was the world's first compendium of early aviation experiments and brought together in one volume the history of man's attempts to fly.

Augustus Herring with Chanute's Lilienthal-type glider (1894)

Augustus Herring with Chanute's Lilienthal-type glider (1894).

In 1894, he began conducting his own experiments, starting with Lilienthal-type gliders. He reached the conclusion that “automatic stability” was the goal and that wing pivoting provided better control than shifting the pilot's weight. However, the gliders he built all relied on the pilot's body movements for proper equilibrium control.

In 1895, he started designing and building his own gliders, drawing upon his knowledge of bridge construction. Over the next few years, Chanute designed and built gliders ranging from one with six tiers of wings to his successful biplanes. Augustus M. Herring, a civil and mechanical engineer, and William Avery piloted the flights and assisted Chanute. He searched for a method of automatic flight control and built some gliders that had either moveable wings or tail control surfaces. Chanute theorized that a glider's wings should pivot on a central frame, rotating slightly if a gust of wind struck the craft. Later he switched to rigid wings, held in place by trusses similar to those he used in bridge construction.

Front view of the Katydid. From "Recent Experiments in Gliding Flight" (1897)

Front view of the Katydid. From "Recent Experiments in Gliding Flight" (1897).


Chanute's Katydid Glider

Chanute's Katydid Glider.


rear view of Chanute's glider multiplane model, with movable main panel controls.

Rear view of Chanute's glider multiplane model, with moveable main panel controls.

In 1896, Chanute commissioned five gliders that were constructed in Avery's shop. The Katydid featured multiple wings that could be moved about on the fuselage to facilitate experimentation. The frame was made of spruce, the surfaces were of varnished Japanese silk. The craft underwent several changes in its wing configuration that improved its flying ability. In its final configuration, it weighed 33.5 pounds (15.2 kilograms), with a supporting surface at the front of 143.5 square feet (13.3 square meters). Flown on the shores of Lake Michigan at Miller Beach, Indiana, near Chicago, the craft made some two hundred glides. 

This map shows the location of "Chanute Hill,"

This map shows the location of "Chanute Hill," the large dune that Octave Chanute and his assistants used in their first experiments in the summer of 1896.


The multiple-wing Katydid in flight (from a drawing in "Gliding Experiments").

The multiple-wing Katydid in flight (from a drawing in "Gliding Experiments"). This illustration shows the improved arrangement of the wings.

Another craft, built late in 1896, was the Chanute-Herring Biplane, a small, but robust glider that used Pratt trussing for strength. The strut-wire-braced wing structure used in this plane is still used in biplane aircraft and was the model the Wright brothers used in constructing their gliders and first airplane. 

Test flight of the Herring-Chanute two-surface glider

Test flight of the Herring-Chanute two-surface glider.


Octave Chanute's flying biplane glider, also known as the Chanute-Herring glider - 1896.

Octave Chanute's flying biplane glider, also known as the Chanute-Herring glider - 1896.

Both Herring and Chanute contributed to the design of this aircraft. Each 16-foot (4.9-meter) wing was covered with varnished silk. The pilot hung from two bars that ran down from the upper wings and passed under his arms. This plane was originally flown at Dune Park, Indiana, about sixty miles from Chanute's home in Chicago, as a triplane on August 29, 1896, but was found to be unwieldy.   Chanute and Herring removed the lowest of the three wings, which vastly improved its gliding ability. In its flight on September 11, it flew 256 feet (78 meters). 

The 1896 Herring triplane (from a drawing)

The 1896 Herring triplane (from a drawing).


The Chanute camp on the Indiana dunes (1896)

The Chanute camp on the Indiana dunes (1896).


Chanute's 1896 glider

Chanute's 1896 glider.

Chanute also sponsored the work of others, including William Paul Butusov and his Albatross.  Butusov was a former Russian sailor who had approached Chanute about working for him in exchange for funds to rebuild the glider that Butusov said he had flown in Kentucky in 1889. The Albatross was a large machine—40 feet (12.2 meters) in length with wings that were 266 square feet (24.7 square meters). It weighed 160 pounds (72.6 kilograms) without the pilot, who had an 8-foot (2.4-meter) “running board” below the wings to move on to steady the craft. A trestle was required to launch the craft. The Albatross attempted to fly at Dune Park in September 1896, but it failed to rise from its trestle. 

William Paul Butusov

William Paul Butusov.


Butusov's Albatross

Butusov's Albatross.


Albatross at the Miller Camp

William Paul Butusov poses with his Albatross at the Miller Camp in 1896. Chanute, Herring, and William Avery are seated on the right.


Launching the Albatross

Launching the Albatross.

Herring continued with his glider flights into 1897. He found a new sponsor, Matthias Arnot, who financed the building of a biplane that was very similar to the 1896 Chanute-Herring glider. In 1898, Herring went on to install an engine and propellers on a larger version of this glider and flew it for short distances near his home in St. Joseph, Michigan.

The Herring-Arnot Glider (1897)

The Herring-Arnot Glider (1897).


The Herring bi-motor powered glider (1898)

The Herring bi-motor powered glider (1898).

Chanute built one more biplane glider, which was flown more than 80 times by William Avery at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. To launch the glider from a level field, Chanute devised a launching apparatus in which the pilot held the glider and stood on a small rolling dolly. A towrope from the glider was attached to a large drum 400 feet (121.9 meters) away. A 10-horsepower (7.5-kilowatt) electric motor rotated the drum at a rapid rate, and pulled the glider forward, launching it like a kite. When the pilot was safely aloft, he released the towrope. 

William Avery gliding at the Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904. From the February 22, 1911, issue of the English The Aero.

William Avery gliding at the Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.
From the February 22, 1911, issue of the English The Aero.

The Wright brothers began their long association with Chanute in 1899, when they started serious work on their airplane. The Wrights corresponded with Chanute regularly, carefully detailing their thoughts to him. He served as their mentor, encouraging their efforts and offering advice. In 1901 he visited the brothers and encouraged them in their gliding experiments. Chanute also witnessed the early Wright flights, including the 1902 glider and the 1904 and 1905 powered flyer. He published the Wright brothers' writings in America and abroad, which did much to stimulate interest in aviation.

Chanute became estranged from the Wrights during their efforts to sell their airplane. According to some, he did not seem to realize the magnitude of their accomplishment and urged the brothers to sell their ideas at a bargain price. The two brothers, fully aware of the importance of their work, disagreed. Around the time of his death on November 23, 1910, Chanute and the Wrights were working toward a reconciliation. 


Chanute, Octave. Recent Progress in Aviation. Smithsonian: Washington, 1911.

Crouch, Tom P. Dream of Wings:  Americans and the Airplane, 1875-1905. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981; reprint ed., Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

Wright, Wilbur. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute. Marvin W. McFarland, editor. New York: Arno Press 1972.

On-Line References:

Chanute, Octave. Progress in Flying Machines. M N Forney 1894, Lorenz & Herweg 1976, Dover 1997 also at http://hawaii.psychology.msstate.edu/invent/i/Chanute/library/Prog_Contents.html.

Chanute, Octave. “Gliding Experiments.” An Address by Octave Chanute, C. E., Mem. W. S. E. (* Illustrated by lantern slides.) Delivered 20th of October, 1897. With remarks by Augustus Herring. Published in the Journal of the Western Society of Engineers, Vol.2, 1897. XX. http://www.crown.net/~sspicer/chanute/glid_exp.html

Chanute, Octave. “Diary of His Visits to the Indiana Dunes in the Summer of 1896.” http://www.crown.net/~sspicer/chanute/diary.html

Spicer, Steve. “An Extended Bibliography on Octave Chanute.” http://www.crown.net/~sspicer/chanute/biblio2.html

Spicer, Steve. “Wings Off the Dunes: Octave Chanute's Glider Flights of 1896.” http://www.crown.net/~sspicer/chanute/chanute.html

Various Eyewitness Accounts of Octave Chanute's Glider Flights. http://www.crown.net/~sspicer/chanute/newspap/newsTOC.html

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