How many of them were there? Otto Lilienthal, who in 1893 invented a glider that actually flew. Lilienthal solved the problem of control (which was an even greater problem than making a light enough machine or a powerful enough engine) by shifting his weight forwards and aft and from side to side. Flying a glider, he wrote, was a lot like learning to ride a bicycle:mentions 190 would-be inventors of flying machines, from Daedalus to
After a few trials one begins to have a feeling of mastery over the situation. A consciousness of safety crowds out the first feeling of anxiety. Finally we become perfectly at ease, even when soaring high in the air while the indescribably beautiful and gentle gliding over the sunny slope rekindles our ardor anew at every trial.
It does not take very long before it is quite a matter of indifference whether we are gliding along at 2 m. or 20 m. (6 ft. or 65 ft.) above the ground; we feel how safely the air is carrying us, even though we see diminutive men looking up at us with astonishment.
Then one day in 1896 Lilienthal’s glider fell from the sky, and he broke his spine and died. His last words were Kleine Opfer müssen gebracht werden—small sacrifices must be made. By then Progress in Flying Machines had already gone into the world and its author, a railway engineer named Octave Chanute, did not see fit to mention Lilienthal’s death in any subsequent edition of the book. Presumably Chanute did not want to discourage future pioneers of flight from their hope, however suicidal the expression of that hope usually was.
The funny thing here is that Chanute was also a would-be aviator. In the summer of 1895, he experimented with a glider of his own design, which he flew off the bluffs of Lake Michigan—or rather, which he hired a young engineer named Augustus Herring to fly for him. Chanute was already 63, too old, in his own estimation, for flying, even over open water. Herring had some success with Chanute’s glider, which was, in fact, the first flying machine to achieve stability by moving the wings rather than (as Lilienthal enthusiastically did, until he didn’t) shifting the pilot’s weight around. His triplane flyer was also the first to use the Pratt truss, a railway-bridge technology, which gave the wings strength and rigidity. If only Chanute had fitted an engine and propeller to this machine he might well have invented the airplane; schoolchildren might know the deathless names of Chanute and Herring.
But Chanute made no more experiments after 1896. Why, you want to wonder, did he give up when he was so close? Except that he didn’t know how close he was, and the experiments were costly and time-consuming, and Chanute was too old, really, for field work, and Herring might have had better things to do than indulge the aeronautical curiosity of an old man… And so what happened instead was that Chanute wrote a book. And the book ended up in the hands of two bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio.
They invited Chanute to their Kitty Hawk camp in the summer of 1901. That was the summer when the Wright brothers realized that (I’m quoting from Joshua Stoff’s introduction to the Dover edition—I lost my grandfather’s copy long ago) “virtually all scientific data concerning lift was grossly inaccurate, and without dependable information to go on, they became discouraged and considered giving up experimentation.”
It was Chanute who persuaded them to continue their tests.
For that reason this hyperromance is dedicated
to OCTAVE CHANUTE, who almost got there himself,
and whose book almost got the Wright brothers there,
and who, discouraged himself, convinced them
to go on.