The classic definition of engineering is: “To utilize the available art and science to accomplish the desired end with a minimum expenditure of time, energy, and material.” That’s the dilemma Orville and Wilbur Wright faced around Christmastime in 1902. They were confident about having licked their airframe/airfoil/control-surface problems in the Wright Flyer, but now needed a lightweight engine to power it. They knew what they wanted — a four-stroke, in-line, four-cylinder, flat engine that could develop about 8 horsepower and weighed less than 180 pounds. Their goal was to keep their test aircraft as close to a “wet” 600 pounds as possible.
But where to find such an engine?
Orville Wright later recalled: “We wrote to a number of automobile and motor builders stating the purpose which we desired a motor and asking whether they could furnish one . . . Most of the companies answered that they were too busy with their regular business to undertake the building of such a motor for us.” So, the Wrights decided to take on the task themselves, with the help of the manager of their bicycle shop, Charles E. Taylor, who was a master “model maker” (as those who crafted “things” from drawings were called back then).
There were no formal blueprints. As Taylor later recalled: “We didn’t make any drawings. One of us would sketch out the part we were talking about on a piece of scrap paper.” Then the sketch was tacked to the wall or workbench as a guide for constructing the pieces in the Wrights’ Dayton, OH, bicycle shop. Changes were many and often, but Taylor’s skills prevailed. Orville Wright later said: “The ability to do this so quickly was largely due to the enthusiastic and efficient services of Mr. C.E. Taylor who did all the machine work in our shop for the first as well as succeeding experimental machines.”
The Wrights and Taylor had carefully calculated what they wanted that would fit their needs. Mounted to the right of the reclining “operator” on the lower wing, the engine’s weight would offset that of the operator. Also, in case of a nose-down crash, having the engine away from the operator lessened the risk of crushing him. They wanted four in-line cylinders, each with a 4-inch bore and pistons with a 4-inch stroke, creating a total displacement of just over 200 cubic inches, generating at least 8 horsepower (12 would be better) and weighing between 150 to 180 pounds. Maintaining a light weight was as important as completing a working engine before spring to allow for testing before the fall trip to Kitty Hawk, NC. Each part, no matter how small, was meticulously weighed and measured after final machining, with a cumulative total weight kept as reference.
Fortunately for the engine builders, Dayton had some of the best foundries in the country, so getting a cast aluminum crankcase was not a problem nor took very long. Cast into the case at the four corners, were “feet” for mounting the engine to the wing. Deciding on a one-piece, four-cylinder casting was rather bold for the day, but that created fewer machining operations and individual parts while also saving time. Taylor devised risers so he could machine the crankcase on the shop’s 14-inch lathe. Historians were skeptical of his ability to do this for many years until Howard DuFour, a retired staff member at Wright State University, not only found the risers in the restored Wright Bicycle Shop at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI, but also used them to demonstrate how the crankcase was mounted in the shop’s original lathe on display there.
The alloy was 8 percent copper and 92 percent aluminum, which was a lighter choice over cast iron or bronze as was being used in most automobile engines of the time. While an air-cooled design would have been lighter, many of the most reliable and highest performance automobile engines of the day were water-cooled, so the Wright 1903 engine crankcase was built with a small water jacket.
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