Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 254:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 254.

Today, we meet the man behind the first airplane engine. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Charlie Taylor was a cigar-smoking, cussing machinist in Dayton, Ohio. The abstemious Wright Brothers hired him in 1901 to help run their bicycle shop and to do their machining. Taylor first built the little one-cylinder engine that drove the wind tunnel they used to work out their ideas.

The Brothers' first airplane was coming together nicely by 1903 -- all but the engine. Their scientific work with gliders, with their wind tunnel, and with airfoils had put them far ahead of other would-be airplane makers. But they needed an engine that weighed less than 180 pounds and delivered at least 8 HP. The automobile makers who answered their letters said they couldn't be bothered with custom-built engines. So the Wrights finally went to Charlie Taylor and said, "Let's build our own engine."

They settled on a four cylinder in-line design -- like turn-of-the-century car engines, but with an aluminum-alloy block. Instead of spark plugs, each cylinder had contacts that opened and closed, creating a spark. The valves weren't cooled, so they ran red hot. The engine weighed 178 pounds and put out 16 HP when it was cold. As the valves heated up, its output dropped to 12 HP, but that was more than enough.

That homemade engine propelled itself into history, but it didn't take Charlie Taylor with it. He stayed on with the Wrights until 1920 and then went out on his own. But then his life turned sour. He tried to start a machine shop business, and it failed. His wife died. He lost his shirt in real estate. When Henry Ford began an historical reconstruction of the Wright Bicycle shop in Dayton, he sent detectives out to find Taylor. They located him in California earning 37 cents an hour as a machinist at North American. The people around him had no idea that he'd built the very first airplane engine.

Taylor came back to work with Ford's reconstruction until WW-II broke out. Then he vanished back into another airplane plant. After the war, Orville found that Taylor had suffered a heart attack and couldn't work. He set up an $800-a-year annuity for Taylor. Orville died before it was clear that post-war inflation would soon reduce $800 to a pittance. And Taylor ended up in the charity ward of an L.A. hospital.

Charlie Taylor was finally memorialized at the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, but not until 1965. Some people's inventive genius flows out of their hands. Taylor had that kind of genius. A big part of the Wright Brothers' accomplishment was that they were able to call that genius forth.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Howard, F., Orville and Wilbur. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 2223.

From The New Art of Flying, 1911

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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