The man behind the Wright brothers

These days, it’s not just aviation enthusiasts who know it was brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright that managed to undertake the first controlled and sustained powered flight on December 17, 1903. A common household name today, it is their infamy and their ‘Wright Flyer’ that have together reinforced their legacy for more than a century. Regarded as the masterminds of powered flight, these extraordinary brothers undoubtedly earned their place in history. The peculiar thing is, however, that few people are aware of the fact that without the help of one man working in the background, the brothers might not have succeeded… 

Charles Edward Taylor was born on May 24, 1868 in the small Illinois town of Cerro Gordo. Mechanically inclined, Charles quit his first job as an errand boy to begin working on the printing press at the Nebraska State Journal. Later in life, he married Henrietta Webbert and they started their lives together in Dayton, Ohio. It was here that Charles’ choice of spouse would change his life forever, because his wife’s uncle introduced him to his tenants… two brothers by the names of Orville and Wilbur. The Wrights rented a space from Taylor’s bicycle business, and soon started approaching Charles with various engineering queries and tasks when he opened a machinery shop nearby. 

Charles Taylor
Charles Edward Taylor. Source: WikiMedia Commons

It was a humble introduction to the Wright brothers for a man who would become perhaps the most forgotten name in aviation history. Within time, Taylor chose to close his shop and instead accepted a job offer from the Wrights. His employment was based around routine bicycle repairs, which allowed the brothers to continue their experiments with gliders. However, Charles would begin to see a higher demand for his services from his friends and employers. In 1902, the Wrights had developed a steam-powered flying machine. But their knowledge told them that a gas-powered engine would be not only safer, but more efficient for their planned ‘Wright Flyer’. Approaching more than a dozen manufacturers with a request for the powerplant they desired, all replied stating that they were unable to meet the demand. 

Unsure who to ask to build their engine, the brothers turned to Charles Taylor. Excited by the prospect of being able to develop his mechanical knowledge, he eagerly accepted. Although with virtually no experience in the working ways of gasoline engines, he used his determination and enthusiasm to tackle the task. With this, and using only sketches and rough specifications, Taylor completed the engine in just six weeks. 

Wright Bros Cycle Shop
The Wright Bro's Cycle Shop, Dayton, Ohio

Despite the remarkable accomplishment, the build was not without its challenges. Firstly, Charles encountered an issue with the crankcase – the brothers had outlined that they needed it to be both light and strong. But at the time, aluminium (the ideal material) was both rare and expensive. Taylor chose to outsource the construction of the crankcase to a local metal works, which was able to manufacturer it using some scrap aluminium. Overcoming this issue, he then needed to fabricate a crankshaft with the limited equipment available to him – a drill press, a lathe, and some hand tools. Charles painstakingly assembled the engine piece by piece, scrutinising every detail and fitting and refitting parts over and over. 

Meanwhile, the Wright brothers worked on their machine. Later, while Charles worked on the engine, he reportedly commented: “I 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 that if I learned to fly, I'd be gadding about the country…and then they'd never see me again." Clearly, both Wilbur and Orville were aware of just how valuable Charles Taylor and his mind were to them and their endeavours. In February 1903, the engine was finished. At full power, it was capable of producing 12hp (8.9kW), meaning it was able to lift an additional 150lbs (68kg) to what had been predicted. As a result of this, the Wright were able to strengthen the aeroplane’s framework.  

The Wright Flyer
First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, 1903.

Of course, there is little to no doubt that the Wright brothers certainly deserve their iconic place in history. On December 7, 1903, the world’s first powered flight became a reality after spending so long as sketches. It flew for approximately 120ft (36m) over 12 seconds to mark a then new world changing era in transportation. The Wrights went on to attempt to sell their ‘Wright Flyer’ to the military. Charles Taylor worked for the brothers until 1911 before losing touch with them. As a result, his work on the engine and his contribution were all but forgotten in the mists of time. But without the genius behind their engine, the Wrights would have struggled to complete their revolutionary design. Despite his anonymity to many, Taylor will always go down in history as one third of the men who made the world far smaller. 

 

All pictures sourced from WikiMedia Commons.