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Octave Chanute and His Photos
Of the Wright Experiments at the Kill Devil Hills

Octave Alexander Chanute
Octave Alexander Chanute
The photos included on this web site were taken by Octave Alexander Chanute (1832-1910), one of the world's leading authorities on the subject of mechanical flight, at the camp of Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1901 and 1902. During those two years, the Wright camp consisted of one frame building and a tent, located in the shadow of a group of sand dunes known as the Kill Devil Hills, four miles south of the village of Kitty Hawk, NC.

Octave Chanute (1832-1910)
Born in Paris, Chanute emigrated to the U.S. at the age of six with his father. He was well educated in private schools, and went to work in 1849 as a member of a crew surveying the route of the Hudson River Railroad. Over the next four decades, he built a reputation as one of the most experienced and successful civil engineers working in the U.S. He supervised track laying operations for a series of railroads that opened the American West; managed the construction of important structures, ranging from the first bridge over the Missouri River to the original Kansas City and Chicago Stockyards; served as chief engineer of the Erie Railroad; and was elected president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Engineering Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Western Society of Engineers.

Chanute's interest in flight began as a hobby and grew to become a consuming passion. During the critical years 1885-1903, he emerged as the creator and focal point of an international community of flying machine experimenters. Chanute corresponded with virtually every major figure in the field, from aging and inactive pioneers to promising newcomers like Wilbur and Orville Wright. Through thousands of letters, he drew geographically isolated pioneers into an informal international community. He organized sessions of aeronautical papers for the professional engineering societies that he led; attracted fresh talent and new ideas into the field through his lectures; and produced critically important publications that helped to establish a baseline of shared information. The publication of his classic, Progress in Flying Machines (Chicago, 1894) was a milestone in the early history of aviation.

Having achieved all of that, Chanute decided to join the ranks of the active gliding experimenters. Working with a handful of young associates, he produced two classic gliders designs between 1896 and 1904. The most important of those designs, produced in association with A. M. Herring, was the classic "two-surface gliding machine," one of the most influential of all pre-Wright aircraft designs.

The friendship between Chanute and the Wright brothers began on 13 May 1900, when Wilbur Wright wrote to the famous engineer, introducing himself as someone "afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man." It was the first item in what would become the most significant correspondence in the early history of aviation. Between Wilbur's first letter and Chanute's death in May 1910, 435 letters or telegrams would pass between them. Chanute and the Wright brothers ultimately found it very difficult to agree upon the nature of their relationship, or the precise impact of the older engineer on the work of the two brothers from Dayton. There can be no doubt, however, that Octave Chanute was the Wright brother's single most important friend and correspondent in the larger aeronautical community.

Chanute at the Kill Devil Hills
1901 Wrights Camp
1901 Wright Brothers Camp at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
Octave Chanute did not visit the Wright brothers during their first stay at Kitty Hawk, September-October 1900. He did visit during their second season, however, arriving at the Wright camp at the Kill Devil Hills on August 4, 1901, and departing on August 11. In addition, Chanute paid the expenses of two young associates, the Tennessee experimenter, Edward Chalmers Huffaker, and George C. Spratt, of Coatesville, PA. Both men had impressed Chanute as talented experimenters. He initially offered to send them to the Outer Banks to assist the Wrights. The brothers politely, but very firmly, rejected the offer of assistance, but agreed to accept the two men into their camp as a favor to Chanute. Huffaker was in camp from July 18 until at least August 14, and perhaps even as late as August 22, when the Wrights themselves left for Dayton. Spratt arrived on July 25 and apparently remained at least through the second week in August.

The Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk with their third and most successful glider on August 28, 1902 and remained until October 28. Chanute arrived in camp on October 5 with yet another young associate, A.M. Herring. The two remained until October 14, during which time they assisted in testing two unsuccessful gliders built at Chanute's expense. Spratt was in camp from October 1-20. While it is assumed that Chanute did most of his own photography, one or more of his associates may have taken some of the photographs included on the web site with this camera. Chanute, Spratt and Herring visited the Wright camp in 1903, departing before the first attempt at a powered flight on December 14. It seems reasonable to assume that Chanute took photographs in 1903, as he had the two previous seasons. If so, none of his prints survives in the present collection.

The Chanute Photos
The Wright brothers were avid photographers, at one point advertising themselves as "dealers in photographic supplies" on their letterhead. A total of 303 5"x7" glass plate images taken by the Wrights, most between 1900 and 1905, are now in the collection of the Library of Congress. The camera with which those photos were taken in on display at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton.

Wright's machine 1902. Just let go.
"Wright's machine 1902. Just let go." [Chanute photo & caption]
Octave Chanute, or his various assistants, took the only other photographs known to have been taken of the historic Wright aeronautical experiments on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, 1901-1902. Accidentally misfiled and thus hidden from scholarly researchers for over forty years, many of these images have never been published. Others have not been published since Chanute's death in 1910.
Chanute first mentioned his photos in a letter to Wilbur Wright dated August 23, 1901.

I send you a full set of all the photographs taken by my camera. Most of them are failures from various causes. They are numbered on the back. If you will say which you want, I will either have them printed for you or send you the films.
He included a set of eleven prints in the letter. A twelfth photo, apparently left out of the original mailing, was enclosed in a letter of August 29. The Wrights were pleased with the photos. "our own pictures of [the 1901] glides will be rather poor, I fear," Wilbur Wright wrote to Chanute on August 29, "as we had no good gliding days after you left." He asked Chanute for an extra copy of his photos numbered two and four on the back, commenting that: "We will try to enlarge them."

Chanute enclosed "a set of the photos I took of your [1902] glides," in his letter of 5 November 1902, and invited the Wrights to "indicate by no. those of which you want more, and the number of each to send." Wilbur responded on November 12, enclosing a selection of their own photos. "They are not as good as I would like to send," he noted, "but they are the best we have just now." He added that he was keeping all of the prints received from Chanute, "with many thanks."

"I think your photographs are superb," Chanute wrote on November 15. "They make me ashamed of mine. You do not tell me how many of the latter you want, so I am having some printed to full your order when received." Writing on November 30, Wilbur remarked that the brothers had not printed any more of their 1902 images since the batch they had sent on November 12, and added that: "We should be very glad to have another set of prints from your films for preservation, if you can spare them from those you have made. They contain many interesting features not shown in our pictures."

Almost a century later, Octave Chanute's photographic record of the Wright glider trials of 1901 and 1902 is available on line.

 

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