A friend, Debbie Allen, sent me this neat article on Charles “Charlie” Taylor, a mechanic for the Wright Brothers. Charlie earns a good deal of the credit in the final phase of the brothers’ preparations for powered flight. I knew a good deal about Charlie’s involvement, but was unfamiliar with the rest of his story.
Charles E. Taylor: The Man Aviation History Almost Forgot
Air Line Pilot, April 2000, page 18
By Bob Taylor
When I was appointed safety program manager (airworthiness) for the Cleveland FSDO, one of the duties assigned to me was to conduct the Charles E. Taylor Award Program, the purpose of which is to honor the mechanics who have been connected with aviation maintenance for 50 years or more. However, one question always came up about the program: Who was Charles Taylor? I was embarrassed because I didn’t know the answer. So I did some research, and here’s what I found.
Three men were involved in the invention and development of the first powered airplane-that’s right, three. Everyone knows about the Wright brothers, but the third man was Charles E. “Charlie” Taylor, a quiet genius who loved cigars and the sound of machinery. Although he contributed to powered flight-one of the greatest human achievements-his name was almost lost in aviation history, until now; and without Charlie, that first powered airplane would never have gotten off the ground.
Charlie Taylor was born on a little farm in Cerro Gordo, Ill., on May 24, 1868. As a boy, Charlie moved to Lincoln, Neb., with his family. He quit school at the age of 12 and went to work as an errand boy for the Nebraska State Journal. However, Charlie was mechanically inclined, so later, when he began working with machinery in the Journal’s bindery, it came easy for him.
When Charlie was in his 20s he moved to Kearney, Neb., where he went into the business of making metal house numbers. There, in 1892, Charlie met a young lady named Herietia Webbert and married her 2 years later. In 1896, the Taylors moved to Dayton, Ohio, where Charlie worked for Stoddard Manufacture, which made farm equipment and, later, bicycles. In Dayton, Charlie met the Wrights. Mrs. Taylor’s uncle rented a building on West Third Street to the Wright brothers for their bicycle business. This was a convenient connection-in 1898, when Charlie started his own machine shop, Orville and Wilbur Wright brought him special jobs, including a bicycle coaster brake they had invented but later dropped.
Charlie eventually sold his tool shop for a profit and went to work for the Dayton Electric Co. However, he didn’t like his job there, so he accepted when the Wright brothers asked him to work for them at $18 per week. This was a good decision for several reasons: The Wright brothers’ shop was only six blocks from where Charlie lived, he could ride a bike home for lunch every day, he was making $8 a week more, and he liked the Wright brothers a lot.
Charlie started to work for the Wright brothers on June 15, 1901, making routine repairs on bicycles. This let the Wright brothers pursue their glider experiments, which included trips to Kitty Hawk, N.C. After one of these trips, the brothers decided they needed more-accurate aerodynamic data than was available, and they decided to build a small wind tunnel with a delicate force balance. With this, they would measure the amount and direction of air pressures on plane and curved surfaces operating at various angles and would improve their theories based on their gliding experiences.
Building the wind tunnel was the first job that Charlie Taylor undertook for the Wright brothers that had any connection with aeronautics. The wind tunnel was a rectangular box with a fan at one end driven by a natural gas engine. Charlie ground hacksaw blades and used them for balances in the tunnel. The Wright brothers conducted many experiments in their wind tunnel, and from this data, they began to make their 1902 glider, with Charlie machining many of the parts.
On Aug. 13, 1902, the brothers shipped the glider to Kitty Hawk. They made several flights with the glider; and on Oct. 31, 1902, the Wrights returned to Dayton to make plans for a powered airplane. Through their experiments, the Wrights were able to accurately predict the horsepower-eight-that was needed to produce and achieve powered flight. The next problem was where to get a light engine that would produce eight horsepower. The Wrights knew that a steam engine might suit their purpose, but a gasoline engine would be safer and more efficient.
On Dec. 3, 1902, the Wrights sent letters to almost a dozen automobile companies and gasoline engine manufacturers asking if they could produce or modify an engine that would develop eight to nine brake horsepower, weigh no more than 180 pounds, and be free from vibration. Most companies replied that they were too busy to undertake building such a special engine.
Falling back on their own mechanical experience, the Wright brothers decided to design and build their own engine. They estimated they could build a four-cylinder engine with a 4-inch stroke and a 4-inch bore, weighing no more than 200 pounds with accessories included. By their calculation, it would develop the horsepower necessary to power the airplane in flight.
Now the problem was to find someone to build the engine, but that was easily solved. The brothers decided that they would give that task to Charlie and that they would build the airframe.
Charlie was excited about this new challenge. From his knowledge of mechanics and design, he knew that the engine design was basic, straightforward, simple, and capable of succeeding. Charlie had very limited knowledge of gasoline engines, but he used his craftsmanship, genius, enthusiasm, and efficiency to tackle the task.
Charlie started building the engine in the winter of 1902-03. Without any formal drawings available, Charlie or the Wrights had to crudely sketch out each part on a piece of paper. After a thorough discussion about the drawing, Taylor would pin it above his workbench and go to work to complete it. Using these sketches and specifications, he finished the engine in 6 weeks-an amazing accomplishment.
I want to describe in some detail how Charles Taylor made the engine, so you can appreciate the craftsman he was. The first problem that Charlie and the Wrights faced was how to design the crankcase. The case had to be light and strong. Aluminum was still a rare metal in those days, and getting a good sound casting was difficult. John Hoban, foreman of Buckeye Iron and Brass Foundry in Dayton, took on the job of making the crankcase using the strongest aluminum alloy he had. The cylinders were turned from fine-grain gray cast iron and had a bore of 4 inches. The top and bottom of the cylinders were threaded so they could be screwed into the crankcase and a water jacket could be screwed onto them.
Charlie’s next major task was making the crankshaft. Being a mechanic most of my life, I would never even try to take on a project of making a crankshaft with the equipment that Charles Taylor had-a drill press, a lathe (both run by a natural gas engine), and hand tools.
Charlie secured a plate of high-carbon tool steel that measured 15/8 inches thick, 6 inches wide, and 31 inches long. On the plate, he traced an outline of the crankshaft and carefully, painstakingly drilled hundreds of holes along the outline of the crankshaft. This weakened the plate enough so he could knock the excess material away with a hammer and metal chisel.
Once he had done this, he had the rough-cut crankshaft ready for the lathe and the finish cut. With the small natural gas engine chugging away at full power and driving the large, wide leather belts that turned the lathe, Charlie turned out a nearly perfect crankshaft to the thousandth of an inch.
The next part that Charlie worked on was a flywheel made from a solid block of cast iron.
Charlie carefully thought out the connecting rods, intake valves, exhaust valves, pistons, valve guides, rocker arm, and numerous other parts that made up the complete engine and tailored them to fit the operation of the engine. Charlie painstakingly assembled the engine part by part, fitting and refitting each piece with the meticulous care of a jeweler making a watch. He scrutinized every detail. He assembled and disassembled the parts, time and time again, making sure of their operation until all the parts were working in harmony.
Building the engine took a lot of genius and ingenuity, and it was finally complete and assembled in February 1903. It was mounted on a test stand and ran well, producing 8 horsepower at 670 rpm and 11 horsepower at 1,000 rpm.
As a result of getting an engine that produced 12 horsepower at full rpm, the Wright brothers were able to add another 150 pounds to the aircraft, which allowed them to strengthen the wings and framework. The engine drove two counterrotating pusher propellers by means of chains. The Wright brothers designed and tested propellers in the wind tunnel and built several propellers that could be used for their first successful flight.
Charlie also made all of the metal parts, including the metal fittings used to join the wooden struts and to which the spruce spars and Roebling truss wires were attached.
On Sept. 23, 1903, the Wright brothers left Dayton for Kitty Hawk to start preparation for their first powered flights, and the Flyer followed them on September 25. They assembled the Flyer and installed the engine on November 2. To reduce the danger of the engine falling on the pilot in a wreck, they placed the engine on the lower wing to the right of center. When they started the engine, the vibration from the irregular firing caused the prop shaft extensions to fail. Charlie made new shafts out of solid steel, which held up during the first flights.
On Dec. 17, 1903, in the mid morning, after a run of about 40 feet at a groundspeed of approximately 7 to 8 mph, the first successful airplane to carry a human lifted off and flew 120 feet in 12 seconds, thus introducing a new era of transportation. Orville and Wilbur Wright each flew twice that day, making successfully longer flights, until Wilbur’s 59-second flight, which covered 852 feet over the ground, ended in a soft crash. Although the Wrights’ first flights weren’t publicized that much, Charlie and the Wright brothers were very excited.
The Wright brothers decided to build another flying machine, but decided against going again to Kitty Hawk. They looked near Dayton for a level place for flying. After a few days of searching, the Wrights found a suitable 90-acre pasture, often called “Huffman Prairie,” which belonged to Torrence Huffman, a Dayton bank president. He allowed them to use it for free-provided they didn’t run over his cows. Charlie and the Wrights built a hangar to house the airplane and moved into the new facility on April 20, 1904.
Charlie took care of the field and facility while the Wrights went around the country and world. Charlie was the first airport manager.
In a 1948 interview, Charlie said that he had “always wanted to learn to fly, but I never did. The Wrights refused to teach me and tried to discourage the idea. They said they needed me in the shop and to service their machines, and if I learned to fly, I’d be gadding about the country and maybe become an exhibition pilot, and then they’d never see me again.” How prophetic those last words were!
On September 17, Charlie was slated to fly with Orville, but before the flight, larger propellers were installed to compensate for the heavier weight of the two men. At the last minute, Charlie was replaced by Lt. Thomas Selfridge, a 20-year-old West Point graduate from San Francisco.
During the flight, Orville heard a strange noise. He looked around, but saw nothing. However, he decided to shut down the engine and land. Suddenly, they felt two large thumps, and the airplane shook violently as Orville tried to control the airplane’s descent to the ground. About 20 feet from the ground, the airplane started to correct itself, but it was too late. The airplane hit the ground, killing Lt. Selfridge and badly injuring Orville Wright. Lt. Thomas Selfridge became the first passenger casualty in a powered aircraft.
After the accident, Charlie investigated the crash scene and found that the new propellers that they installed before the flight had delaminated. Charlie reported his findings to Orville, who was in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Charles was the first person to investigate a powered fatal accident flight.
Charles Taylor continued to work with the Wright brothers until 1911, when an adventurer and pilot, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, wanted to make the first continental flight across the United States. Rodgers bought an airplane from the Wright brothers and enough parts to build two more airplanes.
Orville realized that the airplane would not last more than 1,000 miles without being properly maintained, so he lent Charlie to Rodgers knowing that Charlie would be the only person who could keep the airplane flying for that distance successfully. Charlie sent his family ahead to California and got on the three-car train that was to accompany the flight. One car of the train was a repair car in which the aircraft parts were stored and the airplane repaired.
Crossing the United States took Cal Rodgers 47 days-3 days 10 hours of which was actual flying time. His longest single flight was 133 miles. He crashed 16 times, and the airplane was repaired so many times that at journey’s end only the rudder, the engine drip pan, and a single strut of the original airplane remained-a testament to the skill that Charlie used in keeping the airplane flying.
This was the last of Charlie’s big adventures. Charlie returned to Dayton and worked for the Wright-Martin Company until 1920.
Charlie eventually moved to California and lost touch with Orville Wright, but things turned bad for Charlie. The Depression hit, and Charlie’s machine shop failed. He lost his life’s savings in a real estate venture, and his wife died.
Charlie Taylor’s contribution to aviation was forgotten until 1937, when Henry Ford was reconstructing the old Wright bicycle shop in Dearborn, Mich. Detectives found Charlie working at North American Aviation in Los Angeles for 37 cents per hour. None of his co-workers realized he had built the engine for the first successful airplane.
Charlie worked for Ford until 1941, when he returned to California and worked 60 hours per week in a defense factory. However, in 1945, Charlie suffered a heart attack and was never able to work again.
In November 1955, a reporter discovered Charlie in Los Angeles General Hospital’s charity ward-he was almost destitute. His income was his Social Security retirement check and an $800-a-year annuity fund that Orville Wright had belatedly established before his death in 1948.
The aviation industry immediately started a campaign to raise funds for Charlie. He was moved to a private sanitarium, where he died a few months later, on Jan. 30, 1956, at the age of 88. Having no close relatives, Charles E. Taylor was buried in the Portal of Folded Wings Mausoleum dedicated to aviation pioneers, located in Valhalla Memorial Park, Los Angeles.
Charles E. Taylor was the last of the three who shrank the world by building the first successful powered airplane-the mechanic who made the flight possible.