Octave Chanute

Octave Chanute
Octave Chanute

Octave Chanute (February 18, 1832, Paris – November 23, 1910, Chicago, Illinois) was a French-born American railway engineer and aviation pioneer. He provided the Wright brothers with help and advice, and helped to publicize their flying experiments. At his death he was hailed as the father of aviation and the heavier-than-air flying machine.[1] Chanute lies buried in Springdale Cemetery, Peoria, Illinois.


Railroad engineering

Hannibal Bridge from 1908 postcard

Octave Chanute was widely considered a brilliant and innovative railroad engineer. During his career he designed and constructed the United States' two biggest stock yards -- Chicago Stock Yards (1865) and Kansas City Stockyards (1871). He designed and built the Hannibal Bridge which was the first bridge to cross the Missouri River in Kansas City, Missouri in 1869. The bridge established Kansas City as the dominant city in the region. He designed many bridges during his railroad career, including the Illinois River rail bridge at Peoria, the Genesee River Gorge rail bridge near Portageville, New York, now Letchworth State Park, the bridges at Sibley, Missouri across the Missouri and at Fort Madison, Iowa across the Mississippi and the Kinzua Bridge in Pennsylvania.

Chanute also established a procedure for pressure-treating wooden railroad ties with an anti-septic that increased the wood’s life-span in the tracks. Establishing the first commercial plants, he convinced railroad men that it was commercially feasible to make money by spending money on treating ties to conserve natural resources. As a way to track the age and longevity of railroad ties and other wooden structures, he also introduced the railroad date nail in the United States.


Octave Chanute's 1896 biplane hang glider, a trailblazing design adapted by the Wright brothers[2]

Chanute first became interested in aviation during a visit to Europe in 1875. When he retired from his engineering business in 1890, he decided to devote his time to furthering the new science of aviation.

Applying his engineering background, Chanute collected all the data that he could find from flight experimentors around the world. He published this as a series of articles in The Railroad and Engineering Journal from 1891 to 1893, and collected them together in the influential book Progress in Flying Machine in 1894.[3] This was the most systematic global survey of fixed-wing heavier-than-air aviation research published up to that time.

At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Chanute organized a highly successful International Conference on Aerial Navigation.

A twelve-winged glider of Chanute's design, prepared for launch from the dunes of Miller Beach in 1896.

Chanute was too old to attempt to fly himself, and he partnered with younger experimenters, including Augustus Herring and William Avery. In 1896 and 1897 Chanute, Herring and Avery tested hang gliders based on designs by German aviator Otto Lilienthal, as well as hang gliders of their own design, in the sandhills on the shores of Lake Michigan near the town of Miller Beach not far from what would become the city of Gary, Indiana.[1]

These experiments convinced Chanute that the best way to achieve extra lift without a prohibitive increase in weight was to stack several wings one above the other, an idea proposed by British engineer Francis Wenham in 1866 and realized in flight by Lilienthal in the 1890s. Chanute invented the "strut-wire" braced wing structure that would be used in powered biplanes of the future. He based the design on the Pratt truss which was familiar to him from his bridge-building work. The Wright brothers based their glider designs on the Chanute "double-decker," as they called it.

Chanute corresponded with many aviation pioneers, including Louis Mouillard, Gabriel Voisin, John J. Montgomery, Louis Blériot, Ferdinand Ferber, Lawrence Hargrave and Alberto Santos Dumont. In 1897 Chanute started a correspondence with British aviator Percy Pilcher. Following Chanute's ideas, Pilcher built a triplane, but he was killed in a glider crash before he could attempt to fly it.

Chanute was in contact with the Wright brothers from 1900, when Wilbur Wright wrote to him after reading Progress in Flying Machines. Chanute helped to publicize the Wright brothers' work, and provided consistent encouragement, visiting their camp near Kitty Hawk in 1901, 1902 and 1903. The Wrights and Chanute exchanged hundreds of letters from 1900 to 1910.[4]

Chanute freely shared his knowledge about aviation with anyone who was interested and expected others to do the same, although he did encourage colleagues to patent their inventions. His open approach led to friction with the Wright brothers, who believed their ideas about aircraft control were unique and refused to share them. Chanute did not believe that the Wright flying machine patent, premised on wing-warping, could be enforced and said so publicly.[5] The friendship was still impaired when Chanute died in 1910, although Wilbur Wright delivered the eulogy at Chanute's funeral.

The town of Chanute, Kansas is named after him, as well as the former Chanute Air Force Base near Rantoul, Illinois, which was decommissioned in 1993. The former Base, now turned to peacetime endeavors, includes the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum, detailing the history of aviation and of Chanute Air Force base.

In 2003, as part of its commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight, Aviation Week & Space Technology named Chanute 38th on its list of the top 100 "most important, most interesting, and most influential people" in the first century of aerospace.[6]


"...let us hope that the advent of a successful flying machine, now only dimly foreseen and nevertheless thought to be possible, will bring nothing but good into the world; that it shall abridge distance, make all parts of the globe accessible, bring men into closer relation with each other, advance civilization, and hasten the promised era in which there shall be nothing but peace and good-will among all men."[7]

See also


  • 1832 – born Octave Alexandre Chanut, son of Joseph and Eliza (De Bonnaire) Chanut, in Paris, France
  • 1838 – father Joseph Chanut accepts a position as Vice-president and History Professor at Jefferson College, north of New Orleans
  • 1846 – Chanut family moves to New York. The month-long steamship voyage leaves a lasting impression on Octave, giving him a fascination with modern technology
  • 1848 – takes a job as chainman with the Hudson River Railroad
  • 1849 – starts training as a railroad civil engineer
  • 1854 – becomes an American citizen. He adds the letter "e" to his family name and drops his middle name
  • 1857 – marries Annie Riddell James in Peoria, Illinois
  • 1857 – Plats the town of Fairbury, Illinois
  • 1863 – appointed Chief Engineer of the Chicago and Alton Railroad
  • 1869 – Plats the town of Lenexa, Kansas.
  • 1873 – appointed Chief Engineer of the Erie Railway
  • 1883 – resigns Chief Engineer position of the Erie Railway and opens consulting business in Kansas City
  • 1888 – retires from railroad engineering, but continues working as a consulting engineer
  • 1894 – publishes Progress in Flying Machines
  • 1910 – dies in Chicago


  1. ^ a b "The Death Of Octave Chanute". Popular Mechanics: 38. January 1911. http://books.google.com/books?id=Sd4DAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. 
  2. ^ "Some Aeronautical Experiments," published lecture by Wilbur Wright, 1901, in which he wrote: "we contrived a system consisting of two large surfaces on the Chanute double-deck plan"
  3. ^ Chanute, Octave. 1894, reprinted 1998. Progress in Flying Machines. Dover ISBN 0-486-29981-3
  4. ^ McFarland, Marvin W., editor. 1953, 2001. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, vols. I and II. McGraw-Hill.
  5. ^ Octave Chanute (1910-01-23). "Octave Chanute to Wilbur Wright, Dayton, Chicago, January 23, 1910". http://invention.psychology.msstate.edu/inventors/i/Wrights/library/Chanute_Wright_correspond/1910/Jan23-1910.html. Retrieved 2011-02-12.  The webpage with Chanute's letter to Wilbur also quotes from a newspaper interview with Chanute: "I admire the Wrights. I feel friendly toward them for the marvels they have achieved; but you can easily gauge how I feel concerning their attitude at present by the remark I made to Wilbur Wright recently. I told him I was sorry to see they were suing other experimenters and abstaining from entering the contests and competitions in which other men are brilliantly winning laurels. I told him that in my opinion they are wasting valuable time over lawsuits which they ought to concentrate in their work. Personally, I do not think that the courts will hold that the principle underlying the warping tips can be patented."
  6. ^ All-Time Top 100 Stars of Aerospace and Aviation Announced | SpaceRef - Your Space Reference
  7. ^ Conclusion of Progress in Flying Machines, online at Mississippi State Univ.


External links

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