The Invisible Man
Charles E. Taylor: Behind the scenes of powered flight
By Michelle Garetson
If we’re doing our jobs right, we’re invisible," responded a Director of Maintenance when asked about the role of the aircraft technician. While his answer sounded somewhat funny at the time, it’s true. People fly in airplanes everyday, around the world, and many, if not most, give little or no thought as to how those aircraft keep going or who really is responsible for getting them to the gate and ultimately, aloft. Aircraft technicians perform not on a stage in clear view, but behind the scenes. That said, Charles E. "Charlie" Taylor, the mechanician (nowadays shortened to mechanic), for the Wright Brothers, must be the original "Invisible Man."
There were three of them
While most people know the Wright brothers began as bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio, fewer know that there was a third bicycle mechanic involved with the advent of powered flight. Charles Taylor was fascinated with all things mechanical and had learned to work with machinery as a teen while employed in the Nebraska State Journal’s bindery department.
In 1896, Taylor moved to Dayton from Kearney, Nebraska with his wife. He got a job with Stoddard Manufacture, which made farm equipment and later, bicycles. Fate stepped in as it was Taylor’s wife’s uncle who rented the building to the Wright brothers for their bicycle business. An interesting coincidence as it so happened because in 1898 when Taylor opened his own machine shop, Orville and Wilbur Wright brought him special jobs and projects.ÊTaylor eventually sold his machine shop and accepted the Wright brothers’ offer to work for them at $18.00 per week.
In June of 1901, Taylor began doing routine repairs on bicycles at the Wright brothers’ shop, which allowed the brothers to pursue experiments with gliders and to travel back and forth to Kitty Hawk.
Building a wind tunnel was the first project that Taylor did for the Wright brothers that was affiliated with aeronautics. The wind tunnel was a rectangular box with a fan at one end driven by a natural gas engine. Hacksaw blades were ground up and used for balance in the tunnel. These wind tunnel experiments provided data that allowed the Wright brothers to develop their 1902 glider.
On to "powered" flight
Successful test flights of the 1902 glider in the late summer and early autumn of 1902 at Kitty Hawk prompted the Wrights to make plans for a "powered" airplane when they returned to Dayton. Through their experiments, they were able to accurately predict the horsepower – eight – which was needed to produce and achieve powered flight, but where to get a light engine that would produce eight horsepower? The Wrights knew that a steam engine might work, but a gasoline engine would be safer and more efficient.
Several automobile companies and gasoline engine manufacturers were consulted to ask if they could produce or modify such an engine, but most of these companies replied that they were too busy for this kind of undertaking.
Let Charlie do it
With no takers for the project, the Wright brothers decided to design and build their own engine. They estimated they could build a four-cylinder engine with four-inch stroke and four-inch bore, weighing no more than 200 pounds with accessories included.
The Wrights decided to give the task to Taylor and they would concentrate on building the airframe.
While he had very limited knowledge about gasoline engines, Taylor started building the engine in the winter of 1902-03. Without any formal drawings available, it was necessary for each part to be crudely sketched out by the Wrights or himself on a piece of paper. Taylor would pin the drawing above his workbench and go to work. Using these sketches and specifications, he finished the engine in six weeks.
To truly appreciate the kind of craftsman Charles Taylor was, consider what he the task and the resources at hand. The first problem was the crankcase. It had to be light and strong. Aluminum was a rare metal back then and it was difficult to get a good sound casting, but they ultimately had a crankcase created for them that was made of the strongest aluminum available. The cylinders were turned from fine-grain gray cast iron and had a bore of four inches. The top and bottom of the cylinders were threaded so they could be threaded into the crankcase and a water jacket could be threaded on them.
Tools at hand
The crankshaft was the next hurdle for Taylor. Few today would probably attempt to make a crankshaft with the equipment that he had — a drill press, a lathe (both run by a natural gas engine), and hand tools. Taylor secured a plate of high carbon tool steel that measured 1-5/8 inches thick, six inches wide, and 31 inches long. On the plate, he traced an outline of the crankshaft and then very carefully drilled hundreds of holes along the outline of the crankshaft. This weakened the plate enough so he could knock the excess material away with a hammer and metal chisel. Once this was done, he had the rough cut crankshaft ready for the lathe and the finish cut. The crankshaft turned out to a near-perfect thousandth of an inch margin.
Completing the task
The remaining parts that made up the complete engine were carefully thought out by Taylor and custom created to fit. The engine was painstakingly assembled, part by part, with Taylor fitting and refitting each piece with meticulous care.ÊThe engine was finally complete and assembled in February 1903. It was mounted on a test stand and ran well, producing eight horsepower at 670 rpm and 11 hp. at 1,000 rpm. Charles Taylor had successfully built the first aircraft engine.
First airfield - watch for the cows!
The Wright brothers decided to build another flying machine after their success with The Flyer at Kitty Hawk, but wanted to stay closer to home for the next series of test flights. They eventually found a suitable area, known as "Huffman Prairie," as it belonged to Torrence Huffman, a Dayton bank president. He allowed them to use it for free — provided they didn’t run over his cows. Taylor and the Wrights built a hangar to house the airplane and moved into the new facility on April 20, 1904. Charlie took care of the field and facility while the Wrights were traveling and promoting their invention. Taylor became the first airport manager.
Too valuable on the ground
"I always wanted to learn to fly, but I never did," said Taylor in a 1948 interview in Collier’s Weekly. "The Wrights refused to teach me and tried to discourage the idea. They said they needed me in the shop and to service their machines, and if I learned to fly I’d be gadding about the country and maybe become an exhibition pilot, and then they’d never see me again."
Charles Taylor continued to work with the Wright brothers until 1911. One day, an adventurer and a pilot, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, who wanted to make the first continental flight across the United States., approached the Wrights with his idea. He purchased an aircraft and enough parts to build two more aircraft from the Wright brothers. Realizing that the aircraft would not last more than 1,000 miles without proper maintenance, the Wrights lent Taylor to Rodgers knowing that he would be the only one who could keep the plane flying for that distance. Taylor sent his family ahead to California and got on the train that was to accompany the flight.
Lost and found
Taylor returned to Dayton and worked for the Wright-Martin Company until 1920. He eventually moved to California and lost touch with Orville Wright. The Great Depression hit and his machine shop failed. He lost his life’s savings and his wife died. Taylor’s contribution to aviation was almost forgotten until 1937 when Henry Ford was reconstructing the old Wright bicycle shop at Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford had detectives sent out and Taylor was found working at North American Aviation in Los Angeles. He was making 37 cents an hour and none of his co-workers realized that he had built the first aircraft engine. He then worked for Ford until 1941. In 1945, Taylor suffered a heart attack and was never able to work again.
In 1955, a reporter discovered Taylor, almost destitute, in Los Angeles General Hospital’s charity ward. His income was his Social Security and an $800 a year annuity fund established by Orville Wright before his death in 1948. The aviation industry came to Taylor’s rescue to raise funds. He was moved to a private sanitarium where he died a few months later on January 30, 1956, at the age of 88.
Charles Edward Taylor was buried in the Portal of Folded Wings Mausoleum dedicated to aviation pioneers, located at Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park, in North Hollywood, California.
Ironically, the high visibility and success of aviation today can be attributed directly to the "invisible" contributions of Charles Taylor, the mechanician behind the scenes of powered flight.