Many people, if not most, have never heard of Octave Chanute or know what an anemometer is, but the man and the instrument both played an important part in Orville and Wilbur Wright’s aeronautical experiments.
'First, some background on Chanute. Octave Chanute was a Paris-born civil engineer in the United States who played a significant role in the burgeoning field of heavier-than-air flight in the late nineteenth century. When he retired in the 1880s after a long and distinguished engineering career, Chanute was able to focus full-time on what had always been of interest to him — flight. His exhaustive research into previous successful and unsuccessful attempts at flight led to the publication of a book in 1894, Progress in Flying Machines, which became the most important work of its kind at that time. This book would later be used by the Wright brothers in their research.
In 1896, his gilder, which the pilot controlled by shifting his weight, was flown successfully. That aircraft’s bracing system especially drew the attention of the Wright brothers. Steel wires crisscrossed between vertical wooden struts that supported the upper and lower wings, creating a simple, rigid structure. The Wrights adapted this bracing system to their first aircraft, a kite they built in 1899 to test their control idea.
Chanute was not stingy with his aeronautical knowledge, and the Wrights discussed their ideas with him as they designed their aircraft. Finding the need for a way to measure wind velocity in the field, they wrote to Chanute for advice. He replied in a letter dated March 26, 1901:
The convenient anemometer for field use is the kind with very light flat vanes. The best is made by Richard in Paris (metric units). I have one of them, also a registering instrument graduated to British measure made in Liverpool. Both have been tested and are proved with a formula for corrections. I will lend them, either you like, when you are ready to experiment.
The Wrights chose the Richard anemometer, which helped them measure the wind velocity and calculate the airspeed of their gliders.
Chanute’s estate donated the anemometer to the Aeronautics Division of the Library of Congress in 1932. In 1952 the Library of Congress transferred it to the National Air Museum, which later became the National Air and Space Museum. This anemometer is currently on display in the exhibition The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age in the Museum in Washington, DC. There is a similar Richard anemometer mounted on the 1903 Wright Flyer as part of the instrument package the Wrights used to gather flight data on the first powered airplane.
Ten years after the first flight, Orville Wright wrote about the measurements taken at the time of their first flight in an article titled, How We Made the First Flight, which appeared in an issue of Flying and the Aero Club of America Bulletin:
We had a "Richard" hand anemometer with which we measured the velocity of the wind. Measurements made just before starting the first flight showed velocities of 11 to 12 meters per second, or 24 to 27 miles per hour. Measurements made just before the last flight gave between 9 and 10 meters per second. One made just after showed a little over 8 meters. The records of the Government Weather Bureau at Kitty Hawk gave the velocity of the wind between the hours of 10:30 and 12 o’clock, the time during which the four flights were made, as averaging 27 miles at the time of the first flight and 24 miles at the of the last.
Unfortunately, Chanute’s relationship with the Wright brothers soured by 1905 when his belief that technical information was a public commodity clashed with the Wrights’ desire to control the technology of flight. Nevertheless, when Chanute died in 1910, Wilbur Wright delivered Chanute’s eulogy, saying, "His labors had vast influence in bringing about the era of human flight."
A good way to learn more about Octave Chanute is by reading Locomotive to Aeromotive: Octave Chanute and the Transportation Revolution by Simine Short, which features a foreword written by National Air and Space Museum senior curator Tom Crouch. There is also a museum dedicated to informing the public about Chanute at the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, the Chanute Air Museum.