The Significance of the Miller Experiments
|It may safely be asserted that more was learned concerning the practical requirements of flight during the two weeks occupied by these experiments than I had gathered during many previous years of study of the principles involved, and of experiments with models1|
And of Chanute's contributions Wilbur Wright wrote in 1911:
|Mr. Chanute's...Dune Park2 experiments, in combination with the clear manner in which they were presented to the public, constituted another very important contribution, and finally his encouragement of workers in all countries vastly influenced the trend of events accompanying the birth of the art. From all of these causes I think I was fully justified in saying that if he had not lived the history of human flight would have been quite different from what it has been.3|
1896: Flying Machines and Miller Junction
While it's not my intention to record the history of flight here, it is important to look back on 1896 and the temper of those times, both nationally and locally. Scientific discoveries of the 1800's were yielding a popular technology that was putting man in the driver's seat, literally. In 1900 there were over 100 automobile manufacturers in the state of Indiana alone. Inventors and 'tinkerers' were bustling to strike it rich with all manner of mechanical devices. Many young men who were flying kites and designing gliders were convinced it was only a matter of time before man would learn to fly.
|...by those who have viewed it pronounced 1st class. It is what is called a pile and bent bridge. A large sign conspicuous at Miller, which says, 'One mile north to the proposed harbor'. It is only one mile from there to the lake but at present a pretty sandy one.5|
The Cast of Characters -
Octave Chanute (1832 - 1910)
Augustus M. Herring (1865-1926)
Augustus Herring had dreamed of flying since he was a young boy. Born in 1865 to a wealthy Georgia cotton merchant he had moved with his family to New York City in 1883 and enrolled in the Stevens Institute of Technology. His thesis on "The Flying Machine as an Mechanical Engineering Problem" was rejected as too fanciful by the Institute and he left with no degree. In the early 1890's, living largely on family trust money, he experimented extensively with gliders, flying in 1892 a curious bi-plane model powered by rubber strands. In New York he got the attention of the press, and Octave Chanute, with some experiments with the German Otto Lilienthal's successful gliders. 1895 was a busy year for the young man, working for Chanute, then Samuel Langley at the Smithsonian, then back again with Chanute, who hired him to help with the experiments he had planned for the summer of 1896 at Miller. Herring was talented and independent, and as we shall see, contributed much to the two-surface glider that was developed the following summer.
William Paul Butusov
The fourth, and perhaps most enigmatic of Chanute's group of experimenters was William Paul Butusov. Originally a Russian sailor, he had dreamed of flying watching gulls in flight. He approached a dubious Chanute with a story of having flown a large manned glider in Kentucky in 1889, achieving flights lasting up to forty-five minutes. He'd run out of funds to construct a new glider, but offered to work for Chanute on his projects in exchange for the money to rebuild his Kentucky glider, which he called the Albatross. His monetary needs were modest, and Chanute employed the faithful and industrious Russian.
Butusov worked diligently on his machine, but it was not ready for the tests at Miller in June of 1896. It was, however, a central feature of the tests at Dune Park later that same summer. His Albatross, 40 feet in length with lifting surfaces of 266 square feet, weighed 160 pounds without the operator, who was provided with an 8 foot 'running board' below the wings to move around on to establish equilibrium. A huge trestle was required to launch the craft and a great deal of time during the second experiments at Dune Park was spent erecting the trestle and preparing the Albatross for launching.
The First Experiments -
On June 22, 1896 Chanute and his three assistants climbed off the train at Miller Junction with camping equipment, bringing also two gliders and a kite to experiment with. They attracted a good deal of attention immediately, having to walk the mile or so to the beach through downtown Miller. The first glider they tested was the Lilienthal glider that Augustus Herring had modified to his liking. Otto Lilienthal had attracted worldwide attention with his glider experiments in Germany in the previous years, and Herring had attracted a good deal of attention in New York flying variations of the Lilienthal glider. A number of flights, generally between 70 and 120 feet, were made with it until it was damaged beyond repair on June 29th. Chanute didn't have much hope for the Lilienthal glider: "It is a gliding but not a soaring mach[in]e and little is to be expected from it."7
The Multi-Winged Chanute Machine
Chanute was interested in the other glider, the multi-winged machine that he
had been designing and building over the spring. This glider consisted of six
pairs of wings with a wingspan of twelve feet. It was truly an "experimental"
glider, designed so that the wing sections could be moved around and positioned
easily in different configurations. Perhaps the most abiding concern of glider
experimenters worldwide was that of equilibrium, not just distance. It was
important to be able to adjust to the shifts in the wind and sustain flight in
different wind conditions. The multi-winged machine was designed to experiment
with these variables. Throughout the course of his two weeks in Miller,
Chanute almost daily changed the configuration of the glider's wings and tail
sections, often delighted with achieving better balance with each and every
try. On Saturday, June 27 he recorded in his diary:
|Rigged up machine with 4 wings in front & 8 behind.... Found this much easier to handle than Lilienthal & more stable than any arrangement yet tried. ...Wind too light for a full test, but experiment seems promising.|
An eyewitness to the experiments, Joseph Conroy, speaking at the 1936 plaque
dedication, recalled Chanute's elation at the success of his experiments:
|'I've got it!' Conroy said Chanute cried repeatedly, jumping up and down in his jubilancy over the successful flight.8|
By Wednesday, July 1, the final configuration of the multi-winged machine had
been determined, putting 5 pair of wings in front and one behind. This was
called the Katydid, after the insect. A number of Katydid
flights were taken over the next few days, some of the more successful on the
final day of the encampment at Miller:
|Northerly wind, 6 to 13 miles an hour. Made a few jumps in forenoon-best one 55 ft. Wind freshened about noon and made a number of excellent jumps. Best one, Avery, 78 ft.; Herring, 82' 6". Quit at 2 P.M.. Packed up and went to Miller. Left on 6:41 P.M. train, sending tent material home by express. Winged machine is more compact and handy than Lilienthal's and it promises to be safer & steadier. 9|
The least documented, but perhaps the most significant experiment at Miller was with a kite. Chanute mentions the "Herring kite" in his diary entries of June 25 and 26th, and he took photos of Herring and Avery flying it. It was a mono-winged kite with a fixed tail. Impressed with it's performance, Chanute mentions that on the 26th they began construction of a new kite with a circular frame for the wing. The success of this kite, coupled with fireside discussions between Herring and Chanute, resulted in a completely new glider design in the encampment on Miller Beach. Later Chanute would write that "While we were still in camp I made and gave you [Herring], on cross-section paper, a sketch of the two-surfaced machine with a Penaud tail to serve in building the 1896 machine."10 While Chanute and Herring would squabble in later years over who contributed what to the design of the 'Chanute double decker' that would have such an influence on the Wright brothers, the fact is that they returned to the south shore of Lake Michigan six weeks after leaving Miller, and they brought with them a radically different sort of glider built in those six weeks. It's safe to assume that when they climbed on that 6:41 train back to Chicago on July 4th that they were inspired not only by the success of their experiments but by the prospects of building a totally new and potentially revolutionary glider.
The Second Experiments -
When Chanute and his party returned to Northwest Indiana on August 21st they avoided Miller. The beach at Miller was much too accessible to reporters and other visitors, being only a mile on good road from the rail junction. Also, since they now would be bringing Butusov's Albatross and the materials needed to construct the trestle launching way, it made more sense to come by boat. Accordingly, they loaded the gliders and materials on the boat Scorpion on Thursday, August 20th and arrived off the Dune Park location the next day about noon.
The next week saw only two decent days of weather. On Monday was the first flight of the "double decker". At Avery's suggestion, they had removed the lower wing of the three wing glider and were able to get a very good glide of 97 feet in the new two surface machine. After three days of storms, Friday saw more good efforts with the new glider, but it wasn't for another week, on Friday, September 11th, that the weather was good enough for the most successful glides with the new, two surface glider and the rebuilt Katydid.
On that Friday the Katydid flew 188 feet and the new two-surface glider
did 256 feet. On Saturday Herring, who was convinced that the Albatross
was bound to fail, refused to work on that machine and took the two surface
machine for it's most successful flight of 359 feet. Butusov's Albatross
was put on the trestle launching ways the next week and several unsuccessful
attempts were made to fly it as a kite. Another full week of bad weather went
by until Saturday, September 26th, when there was another attempt to
launch the Albatross. According to Chanute's diary,
|As soon as the front of machine had fairly left the chute [the trestle], the side wind blew the head around and the apparatus took a descending S.W. course, describing a curved path. The left wing struck the trees west of chute, the tip struck the sand and the wing was broken, this being chiefly in the main center arm. The machine fell to the ground and a number of ribs and stanchions were broken.|
With this it was determined to end this year's experiments and the party returned to Chicago.
Epilogue - Writing and More Experimentation
Over the winter Herring found a new patron, Mathias Arnot of Elmira, N.Y., who was willing to finance the construction of another glider almost identical to the original two surface glider. He returned to Dune Park along with Arnot and several others and continued the successful experiments with the glider, achieving a glide of 600 feet in September of 1897. Chanute was invited to those experiments and came, evidently with his camera, for there are more good photos of the 1897 experiments than of those the previous year. The gliders were so similar that Chanute used the 1897 photos to illustrate the experiments of 1896 in a lecture that he gave in October of 1897 which was published in the Journal of the Western Society of Engineers.
Octave Chanute and the Wright Brothers
2Throughout this essay, and in Chanute's writings, the location of the second experiments is called "Dune Park". It is difficult to locate the exact location of these experiments on the lake, but it's generally believed that they were on land now occupied by Midwest Steel just east of Odgen Dunes. The name "Dune Park" was the name of a stop on the now defunct Lakeshore and Michigan Southern Railroad. It should not be confused with the current day Dune Park stop on the South Shore Railroad that is just east of the Indiana Highway 49.
3Wilbur Wright to Charles S. Strobel, January 27, 1911, in McFarland, Marvin D., The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Vol II, pp 1018-1019.
4Quoted in Inglis, William, 'The Problem of Flight Solved' (Harpers Weekly, October 24, 1908, p 27)
5Reported in the Westchester Tribune, Aug. 29, 1896, (Chesterton Library). The bridge must have been interesting to the experienced engineer Chanute. It was no doubt also a contributing factor to avoiding Miller later that summer. The milages quoted here may be a bit confusing. For the record it is a mile from the intersection of Miller Ave. and Lake Street, (downtown Miller) to the lake over the bridge which is about three tenths of a mile from the lake.
6Crouch, Tom D. A Dream of Wings, Americans and the Airplane, 1875-1905; (W.W.Norton & Co., NY, 1981) p. 306.
7Chanute's Diary entry for June 23.
8Gary Post Tribune, July 13, 1936.
9Chanute's Diary entry for July 4, 1896.
10Letter from Chanute to Herring, March 24, 1901, quoted in McFarland, Marvin D., The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Vol II.
11Chanute's and his party spent 32 days at Dune Park, not counting Sundays, on which they did not work. Of the 32 days, 18 were unproductive due to weather conditions and only a little could be done, and on one other, labeled an 'Indian Summer' day, there was no wind. Many of the 18 'good' days were spent constructing the Albatross. Overall there were only about six days in that period were both machines and weather were conducive to gliding experiments.
12Herring, A.M. "Recent Advances toward a Solution of the Problem of the Century." Aeronautical Annual, 3 (Boston, 1897), pp 70-74.
Chanute's Diary of 1896
Newspaper and Eyewitness Accounts Maps Centennial Celebration - 1996
Bibliography Chanute Glider Replicas Overview of the Chanute Gliders
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