Simine Short is an aviation historian who has researched and written extensively on the history of motorless flight. Her first book, Glider Mail: An Aerophilatelic Handbook, received numerous research awards worldwide and is considered a standard reference by aerophilatelists and aviation researchers. She recently answered some questions about her book Locomotive to Aeromotive: Octave Chanute and the Transportation Revolution, released this August in paperback.
Q: Your book chronicles the achievements of Octave Chanute, a renowned civil engineer of the nineteenth century. What were Chanute’s most well-known contributions to ground and air transportation?
Simine Short: During his long career Chanute made many contributions to our modern world, notably to the improvement of long distance rail transportation, the development of urban elevated public-transit rail lines, preservation of wooden railroad ties, and the beginning of the practical flying machine.
Coming to Illinois in 1853 Chanute had many opportunities, as the railroads started to open the west to immigration. Chanute laid out the first cross-state, west-east railroad from Peoria, IL, to the Indiana State line and learned to plat towns along the road. He moved with his family to Chicago where one of his major projects was the Chicago Stock Yards that helped farmers in the Midwest sell their cattle efficiently and profitable. The success of the yards brought him more challenging job offers. His next assignment was to build a bridge across the “unbridgeable” Missouri river, which helped Kansas City become a national transportation hub. This also required building another Stock Yard and railroads across eastern Kansas and Nebraska, to funnel traffic through that city. In the early 1870s he accepted the Chief Engineer position with the Erie Railway helping modernize it and regain profitability. He eventually left that rail giant to become a transportation consultant and also became involved with wood preservation, he told members of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1880 that he “no longer wanted to be a man of routine, who is ordered hither and thither by promoters of schemes and the magnates of Wall Street.” (p 107 of Locomotive to Aeromotive) He wanted challenges, and his interest in man-flight met that criteria. Here he could work with other people and share experience and knowledge.
Q: What sparked Chanute’s interest in aeronautical experiments and prompted his rise to becoming an international authority on flight theory?
Short: In 1900 Chanute wrote that he became interested in the problem of flight in the 1850s, when he was a budding civil engineer in his 20s. At that time it presented the attraction of an unsolved problem. He knew birds gave daily proof that flying was possible, and he thought that artificial flight would be entirely feasible if sufficiently light motors could eventually be obtained. In the latter part of the 19th century the negative public attitude toward flying changed slowly and respected engineers and scientists became involved in the quest to fly. Chanute always felt that man-flight should be discussed and studied by people of varied background, each going a little deeper into the unknown and then sharing their newly acquired knowledge. His business acumen and significant financial success allowed him to tackle aviation without too many financial worries.
Q: How would you characterize Chanute’s relationship with the Wright brothers?
Short: Various authors and researchers have discussed either side of the “Chanute – Wright Controversy.” In my opinion there is no “controversy” just different opinions. The older man, Octave Chanute, already a financial success, had a different philosophy than the younger man, Wilbur Wright.
Wilbur Wright first contacted Chanute in 1900 and wrote that his apparatus was very similar in appearance to the one Chanute and his team used in 1896/7, however Wright intended to truss it differently, as he wanted to warp the wings for control. I believe Wright was looking for a mentor. For some time Chanute had hoped that someone, anyone, would copy his patented design and improve on it; he thought that Wright could take the flying machine problem to the next level. When the Wright brothers believed their aeroplane was within their grasp, they decided to work in secrecy and sell their patented design. This put a rift in their relationship, as Chanute explained in his article “The Wright Brothers’ Flights,” published by The Independent in June 1908: “They inaugurated negotiations for the sale of their invention to various governments for war purposes, asking, it must be confessed, very high prices. Being somewhat opinionated as well as straightforward, they made two mistakes: the first that the principal market for flying machines would be for war purposes (where cost is no object), and the second that contracts could be obtained for a secret machine. Two years were spent in fruitless negotiations. Wright Brothers seem now to have changed their point of view, but meanwhile large numbers of French aviators have begun experimenting, operating in public, and teaching each other.” In 1909, when the brothers entered their patent infringement lawsuits, Wilbur wrote to Chanute, explaining their reasons for doing so. The older man appreciated receiving the letter as he had wondered how much help he may have given the brothers and looked forward to renewing the friendly relationship, but the 78-year old Chanute died a few months later. Wilbur attended the memorial service in Chicago and later wrote, “Few men were more universally respected and loved.”
Q: How did the biplane glider Chanute designed in 1896 influence, as Wilbur Wright said, “flying machine design so long as flying machines are made?”
Short: Being a civil engineer and having studied the different failures of flying machines of the past many centuries, Chanute took the heuristic approach. His bi-plane structure was trussed like a bridge for rigidity. He then experimentally developed wing and tail surfaces by re-arranging them systematically until the glider performed as he envisioned. Remarkably Chanute’s experiments led to an arrangement of surfaces, structures and airfoils that can be detected in many of our modern aircraft.
Q: Apart from his technical contributions, your book brings to life the human qualities of Chanute that elevated the professionalism of the engineering field, and fostered community amongst colleagues and fellow experimenters. Why is this aspect of Chanute integral to capturing his achievements?
Short: Understanding Chanute’s leverage of people’s teamwork and his willingness to research and collaborate with others (which was a relatively new concept in the 19th century) helps us understand how he could succeed in many diverse transportation fields in one brief life-time. Chanute was a tireless networker, an advocate for idea sharing across disciplines and continents, setting a high standard and great example for multidisciplinary knowledge, collaboration and outreach. He was an engineer with social skills to become a builder, a businessman and a true leader, while still being a dreamer who pursued his passions. He lived his life to the fullest, having fun in just about everything he did.