The Aero Club of America
1906 Exhibition of
Aeronautical Apparatus

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[Ed. – In late 1905, several members of America's technological elite organized the Aero Club of America. It had already been operating informally for over a decade, but in November 1905 they adopted a charter patterned after the Aéro Club de France. One of the purposes of the formalized ACA was to share and disseminate information about the emerging field of aviation and aeronautics. It's very first undertaking was to stage a trade show at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City, bringing together flight-minded folks from all over America and Europe. From January 13 through January 20, the Aero Club of America Exhibition of Aeronautical Apparatus showed the state of the flying art in 1906.

It was a turning point in aviation and no one felt its effects more than the Wright brothers – even though they just barely participated. At the invitation of Dr. Albert Zahm of Catholic University, they paid the $20 membership fee to join the club. (Zahm was an acquaintance of theirs with whom the brothers had corresponded about their wind tunnel work and powered flights.) They then sent the crankshaft and the flywheel from their damaged 1903 Wright Flyer engine, along with a few photographs – but they did not go themselves. The same week that the exhibition opened, Scientific American magazine published a snarky editorial entitled "The Wright Airplane and its Fabled Performance" intimating that the Wrights had grossly exaggerated their success in a report they had sent to Ferdinand Ferber, a member of the Aéro Club de France. This was in contrast to the photos the Wrights had sent to the exhibit, which showed their success was real.

It also contrasted with letters that Zahm had exchanged with the Wrights and a report that Charles Manly had given to the Aero Club of New York on 14 November 1905, describing the test flights of the Wright brothers in 1904 and 1905. (Manly may have surreptitiously witnessed some of those flights.) Manly, Zahm, and other Aero Club members in the know apparently talked to aeronautical enthusiast William J. Hammer. Hammer was an accomplished scientist who had helped Edison develop the electric light and first proposed radium as a treatment for cancer. He was also a founding member of the Aero Club of America and had an extensive photo collection of aeronautical experiments which he displayed at the exhibition. The conflict between the Scientific American article and other reports that he was hearing peaked Hammer's curiosity.

After the show, Hammer traveled to Dayton, Ohio and talked to the brothers. He came away certain that Orville and Wilbur had not exaggerated their accomplishments. He went back to New York City and convinced other members of the club to endorse the Wrights. Dr. Alfred Zahm, because he was already their acquaintance, was asked to contact them. In a letter to the Wrights, Zahm suggested they prepare a statement describing their experiments and that the Aero Club would adopt it as a resolution. "This would be the first formal identification that your countrymen appreciate your work and are proud of it. It may also prove of historical value in showing that the specialists of your day regard you as the inventors of the first successful flying machine."

The Wrights were agreeable; the Scientific American article had stung. Another in a German magazine had plainly called them "bluffers." They had been secretive while developing their airplane, staying out of the news until their patent was secure. But now it was time to be more forthcoming. They didn't yet have their patent – it would not be granted until May 22 of that year – but no doubt their lawyer had told them their application had passed the Patent Office's litmus test. So they wrote a straightforward account of their flights at Huffman Prairie which the Aero Club adopted and published along with its own resolution in March. Within a few weeks, Scientific American conducted their own investigation. On April 7, the magazine told its readers that "There is no doubt whatever that these able experimenters deserve the highest credit for having perfected the first flying machine of the heavier-than-air type which has ever flown successfully and at the same time carried a man."

The following is Scientific American's description of the Aero Club of America Exhibition of Aviation Apparatus. It's a snapshot of American aeronautics just as the Wright brothers began to have an effect.]


From Scientific American, Volume XCIV, No. 4, January 27, 1906, pps. 93-94

A most interesting exhibit, in connection with the Sixth Annual Automobile Show held recently in the 69th Regiment Armory, was that made by the newly-formed Aero Club of America. This exhibit was the most complete of its kind ever held in any part of the world, for all types of flying machines, balloons, and airships were represented. In the same room with Santos-Dumont's No. 9 airship was to be seen one of the original gliding machines of Herr Otto Lilienthal, as well as the gasoline and steam-propelled aerodromes of Prof. Langley and the motor-driven aeroplane models of Herring and Hargrave. Other apparatus shown consisted of Prof. Bell's tetrahedral kite, Ludlow's combined box kite and aeroplane, Myer's electrical torpedo, and Kimball's heliocoptere. The original Hargrave box kite was also shown, as well as numerous models designed by Herring and Chanute. Besides these very complete exhibits of apparatus, the walls of the room were covered with a large collection of photographs showing the machines of other inventors, such as Whitehead, Berliner, and Santos-Dumont; and other photographs showing airships and balloons in flight, together with bird's-eye views taken from the same. In another room cinematograph exhibitions were given twice every day. The views shown consisted of motion pictures of the Vanderbilt automobile race, the Mount Washington hill climb, balloon ascensions, and experiments in raising aeroplanes when towing them by means of a motor boat. In showcases placed in the exhibition hall were seen primitive models of flying machines from the Patent Office at Washington, light motors and other appliances for aeronautical work, together with a collection of books bearing on the subject. Among the exhibits of apparatus of historic interest were the large wood propellers which Mr. Herring used on the first motor-driven, man-carrying aeroplane to make a flight from the ground. This machine, according to Mr. Herring, was propelled by a small compressed-air motor. On October 22, 1898, he informs us that it flew with its operator a distance of 72 feet in S seconds against a 25-mile-an-hour wind. Another exhibit of great interest at the present time, in view of the claims of remarkable flights made by the Wright brothers last summer, was the four-throw crankshaft and flywheel of the motor said to have been used on their machine when, on December 17, 1903, they made their first flight with a motor-driven aeroplane at Kitty Hawk, N. C. These experimenters claim to be using the same cylinders with their latest machine, the motor of which they have fitted with a lighter crankshaft. The crankshaft shown weighed in the neighborhood of 30 pounds.

Among the model self-propelled aeroplanes shown, those of Prof. Langley should undoubtedly have first mention. The steam-driven machine flew about half a mile over the Potomac River at Quantico, Va., a little less than ten years ago, or on May 6, 1896. This was the first flight of a motor-driven aeroplane. The gasoline-propelled model (which has a five-cylinder air-cooled motor, the cylinders being arranged in a circle) made numerous shorter flights in August, 1903. Prof. Langley's models are constructed on the following plane principle. The original inventor of this device, which was first brought out about 1878, was Mr. Brown, and samples of Brown's "bi-planes," as they are termed, are shown on page 93. A lift of only about 20 pounds to the horse-power is possible with this system, as against a lift of from 100 to 150 pounds per horsepower with the superposed plane type. In actual practice Langley obtained about 18 pounds lift. Langley's complete steam machine weighed 30 pounds, while the motive plant developed 11.4 BHP. The gasoline model was one-quarter the size and one-sixteenth the weight of Langley's man-carrying machine. It weighed 58 pounds, of which 10 pounds was in the 10 horsepower engine. As to the actual flights of these machines, there can be no question, for the one on the date mentioned was witnessed by Prof. Bell, and photographs were taken of the machine in flight.

Another interesting model is that exhibited by Mr. Herring, and which he claims has made numerous successful flights. When tethered to a high pole with a long cord, this machine is said to have flown 15 miles in a circle in December, 1902, and to have stopped only when the gasoline supply gave out. A single-cylinder, air-cooled gasoline motor having mechanically-operated inlet and exhaust valves and a make-and-break igniter, all worked from a single cam, and carrying a small propeller on its crankshaft, was shown on this machine. The weight of the motor was said to be only 2 pounds, and its maximum horse-power 0.51 at 3,400 RPM. In flight, however, the engine only made about 850 RPM. and developed but 0.07 horsepower. The aeroplanes of this model (which is shown in the lower left-hand picture on the preceding page) were 5-1/4 feet long by 14 inches wide, and the 19-inch propeller which was fitted drew them through the air at a speed of about 30 miles an hour. This machine is of the usual rectangular, curved, superposed plane type invented by Chanute and Herring about the year 1896. Its successful operation is said to be due to an equilibrium-maintaining device which its inventor prefers to keep secret. No photographs of this or of larger man-carrying machines in flight were shown, nor has any trustworthy account of their reported achievements ever been published. A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air, and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901, was the only other photograph besides that of Langley's machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight. In order at least partially to substantiate their claims, it would seem as if aeroplane inventors would show photographs of their machines in flight. This has been done by Mr. Maxim and Prof. Langley; and on account of his desire to secure photographs of his tetrahedral kites in mid-air. Prof. Bell uses red silk in their construction instead of nainsook, which he prefers, but which, owing to its light color, is difficult to photograph.

In contrast to the great secrecy of the later aeroplane experimenters, should be noted the free manner in which that first great experimenter in gliding flight, Otto Lillenthal, gave the results of his experiments to the world. One of the early gliding machines used by him in 1893 was exhibited, and a photograph of this machine is to be seen on page 93. Had it not been for his untimely death in 1896, from the breakage of his machine while in flight, there is scarcely any doubt that he would have solved the problem of the motor-driven aeroplane some years ago; for he was not only a thorough mathematician and physicist, a clever constructor and mechanical engineer, but he was also possessed of that daring and physical dexterity which is a valuable aid to one attempting to solve such a problem.

One of the most interesting exhibits was Prof. Bell's tetrahedral kite shown on the preceding page, and a 408-cell model of the huge 1,300-cell man-carrying kite "Frost King," which was fully described in Supplement No. 1432, and which carried over 280 pounds. Despite the apparent frail structure of these tetrahedral cells, their great strength when assembled was demonstrated by the placing of a 190-pound man upon a mass of 100 or more without damage. The kite we illustrate, by means of its tipping tail worked by a pendulum in the bow, will descend in long graceful curves when released in mid-air, and several times it has described complete circles before alighting, in much the same manner as does a soaring bird.

Among other interesting exhibits were examples of balloon wicker baskets equipped with appliances for sketching and photographing the country, and for making weather observations. The frames of two dirigible balloons, the "Santos-Dumont No. 9" and "The California Arrow," were exhibited. Both were equipped with air-cooled gasoline motors of the lightest construction.

A complete set of apparatus used by the weather bureau formed still another extremely interesting exhibit.

The greatest credit should be given to the Committee of the Aero Club, and especially to its able secretary, Mr. Augustus Post, for the exhibit made at the Armory. Not only will this exhibit tend to stimulate interest in the art of flying, but, followed by the active interest of the Club in matters pertaining to the art, it should greatly promote the development and perfection of the practical flying machine.

In Their Own Words

  • Pulling Back the Curtain – At the request of the Aero Club of America, the Wrights publish the results of their 1904 and 1905 experiments at Huffman Prairie for the first time.
One room of the 1906 Aero Club Exhibition in the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. An original Lilienthal glider and Chanute-Herring glider are suspended overhead. William J. Hammer's photo collection is displayed on the wall to the left. The crankshaft and flywheel from the 1903 Wright Flyer engine is on a display table at the right. Interesting note: These engine parts were never returned to the Wright brothers. The engine on the original Flyer in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum was built in 1916, pieced together from the remaining original parts and many new ones -- including a new crankshaft and flywheel.

Alexander Graham Bell (lower center) displayed his tetrahedral kites in an adjacent room in the Armory. (Bell would eventually see his associate John McCurdy fly a tetrahedral wing aircraft is 1912.) Overhead is the gondola and engine from Alberto Santos-Dumont's Airship No. 9.

The cover of the January 27, 1906 edition of Scientific American showed a  huge crane designed to construct a warship.
Side and End Views of Prof. Bell's Tetrahedral Kite, Which, When It is Released in Mid-Air, Descends in a Series of Curves, and Sometimes Describes a Complete Circle Like a Soaring Bird.

This photograph shows the rear of the kite, which is made up of tetrahedral cell constructed of spruce sticks 4mm (0.157 inch) and 25 cm (9.843 inches) long, bound together with fine twine and covered with red silk. The weight of a single cell is 9-1.2 grams or 1/3 of an ounce.

This view shows the tail tipped upward, which is accomplished automatically by a pendulum in the bow when the kite makes a dive.
Langley's Steam Aerodrome -- the First Power Driven Airplane to Fly

The first successful flight of this machine was at Quantico, Virginia on May 6, 1896. The rudder at the left of this picture forms part of Lilienthal's gliding machine. In the right-hand corner of the room is seen the Herring-Arnot two-surface aeroplane which has been used successfully by Mr. Herring and the Wright brothers.
Herring Dome Kite of 1898

With this kite the center of pressure is almost constant with widely varying angles of inclination. It's lifting power is also high.
Samples of Brown's Bi-Planes

This type of aeroplane consisting of two following surfaces was invented about 1878. Langely's aerodrome was built on this plan. But 20 pounds per horsepower can be lifted with this type of machine, where from 100 to 150 pounds per horsepower can be lifted with the superposed plane type.
The Motor and Basket of Santos Dumon't's No. 9 Airship.

A blower is arranged to blow on the motor cylinders to cool them properly. A large bicycle wheel acts as a flywheel and the shaft carrying the propeller runs forward to the front of the framework. The model two-surface aeroplane in the left-hand corner is a motor-driven model which is said to have made numerous successful flights.
One of the Original Lilienthal Gliding Machines with Which He Made Hundreds of Successful Flights

This machine has a rudder which is shown in the view of Langley's aerodrome. Lilienthal succeeded in steering in a sharp curve to right or left with this machine.

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Scientific American article describing the 1906 aeronautical exhibition in New York City
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