Charles Taylor & The First Aircraft Engine

Spring has finally sprung and it is time to dust off our motorcycles and go cruising.  To help kick off the season I invited a friend over for lunch to talk about cars and motorcycles.  The conversation turned to engines and naturally being a pilot I added a little about aircraft engines.  Soon I was on the topic of Charles Taylor and how he built the first aircraft engine for the Wright Bros.  I explained how Charles Taylor built this first aircraft engine with some very basic tools and how that engine not only met the Wright Bros requirements but it exceeded them.  Several years ago I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing one of his 1903 engines run.  The engine that I saw run was ALL original ran just fine – over 100 years old!

Here is a little piece from Centennial of Flight  in Charles Taylor’s own words about the first aircraft engine.

“We didn’t make any drawings. One of us would sketch out the part we were talking about on a piece of scratch paper, and I’d spike the sketch over my bench. It took me six weeks to make that engine. The only metal-working machines we had were a lathe and a drill press, run by belts from the stationary gas engine.

The crankshaft was made out of a block of machine steel 6 by 31 inches and 15/8 inch thick. I traced the outline on the slab, then drilled through with the drill press until I could knock out the surplus pieces with a hammer and chisel. Then I put it in the lathe and turned it down to size and smoothness.

The body of the first engine was of cast aluminum and was bored out on the lathe for independent cylinders. The pistons were cast iron, and these were turned down and grooved for piston rings.

The completed engine weighed 180 pounds and developed 12 horsepower at 1,025 revolutions per minute.

While I was doing all this work on the engine, Will and Orv were busy upstairs working on the airframe. They asked me to make the metal parts, such as the small fittings where the wooden struts joined the spars and the truss wires were attached. There weren’t any turnbuckles in the truss wires, so the fit had to be just so. It was so tight we had to force the struts into position.

The fuel system was simple. A one-gallon fuel tank was suspended from a wing strut, and the gasoline fed by gravity down a tube to the engine. The fuel valve was an ordinary gaslight pet cock. There was no carburetor as we know it today. The fuel was fed into a shallow chamber in the manifold. Raw gas blended with air in this chamber, which was next to the cylinders and heated up rather quickly, this helping to vaporize the mixture. The engine was started by priming each cylinder with a few drops of raw gas.

The ignition was the make-and-break type. No spark plugs. The spark was made by the opening and closing of two contact points inside the combustion chamber. These were operated by shafts and cams geared to the main camshaft. The ignition switch was an ordinary single-throw knife switch we bought at the hardware store. Dry batteries were used for starting the engine, and then we switched onto a magneto bought from the Dayton Electric Company. There was no battery on the plane.

Several lengths of speaking tube, such as you find in apartment houses, were used in the radiator.

The chains to drive the propeller shafts were specially made by the Indianapolis Chain Company, but the sprockets came ready-made. Roebling wire was used for the trusses.”

Click here for an article that Harry Kraemer published in Aviation Maintenance in December 2003.

Click here for some more reading on Charles Taylor from Aircraft Maintenance Technology.

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