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.
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