Flying Manuscripts

Octave Chanute pictured in a head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left

Octave Chanute, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left. between 1900 and 1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The majority of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division’s collections comprise the personal papers of individuals. These collections contain many different types of manuscripts, most typically correspondence (both incoming and copies of outgoing letters) diaries, notebooks, subject files, memoranda, reports, and other similar textual documents. Occasionally artifacts are preserved with the collections as well; Carl Sagan’s eyeglasses for example, an ancient Greek statuette owned by Sigmund Freud, or Walt Whitman’s walking stick. An exchange of letters between two aviation pioneers at the end of the nineteenth century, however, includes as an enclosure what may be the only examples of flight-capable aircraft in the division’s collections.

George A. Spratt, a physician turned farmer from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to Octave Chanute on December 20, 1898, requesting help with his study of recent advancements in the field of aeronautics.

“The flying machine must come, and it will soon come. Studying the subject principally from observation of birds, etc. in complete isolation from others interested, I am ignorant of the advances made.” “How can I keep in touch with the advances made? I want to know more – I want to do more.”

Spratt’s recipient, Chanute, was as an international authority on the subject of flight. Chanute corresponded with numerous aeronautical experimenters in the U.S. and Europe. He published on the topic and gave talks at aeronautical conferences. Impressed with Spratt’s enthusiasm and ideas, Chanute later suggested to Wilbur and Orville Wright that Spratt assist with their gliding experiments at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. As a result, the four met at Kill Devil Hills during the Wrights’ second flying season in the summer of 1901. As with Spratt, Chanute provided encouragement and important moral support to the Wright brothers. The four corresponded often while discussing the problems facing the realization of powered, controlled, and sustained flight. The Wright brothers eventually succeeded on December 17, 1903, with operating the first successful piloted airplane, but their success was in some part the result of a community of pioneers, like Chanute and Spratt, who exchanged their ideas and data with each other, often through publication and correspondence. Much of this correspondence is preserved in the papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright and those of Octave Chanute, both of which are in the custody of the Manuscript Division.

Wilber Wright with visitors and fellow campers in front of the Wrights' work shed at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Left to right: Edward C. Huffaker and Octave Chanute seated, Wilbur Wright standing, and George Spratt sitting on ground

Wilbur Wright with visitors and fellow campers in front of the Wrights’ work shed at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Left to right: Edward C. Huffaker and Octave Chanute seated, Wilbur Wright standing, and George Spratt sitting on ground, Wilber Wright photographer, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Following Octave Chanute’s death in 1910, George Spratt requested that his letters to Chanute be returned to him. Those letters, along with Chanute’s letters to Spratt, were later acquired by the Manuscript Division in 1997, and reunited with the Chanute Papers as an addition. Among these many interesting letters are two curious objects. Chanute wrote to Spratt sometime in January 1900 enclosing two wings made of paper with a metal strip folded in along the leading edge for Spratt to experiment with:

“I enclose herewith a couple of aeroplanes, such as described in my book, page 73. If they have not gotten out of adjustment in the mail, (and very little change will do it,) they may exhibit a very simple way of getting propulsion out of gravity.”

Chanute provides a more detailed description of this design in his Progress in Flying Machines (1894). Spratt apparently succeeded in following those printed instructions (see page 81), and offered his technical observations of the gliders’ flight characteristics in a reply to Chanute of February 8, 1900, one of many exchanges that led these aeronautical pioneers to join the Wright Brothers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina 120 years ago.

Finding aids to the papers of Octave Chanute, and those of Wilbur and Orville Wright, are available online to assist in preparing for a research trip to the Manuscript Reading Room.  Portions of the Wright Brothers Papers have also been scanned and are available for viewing remotely.

Further Reading:

Crouch, Tom D. A Dream of Wings, Americans and the Airplane, 1875-1905. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Chanute, Octave. Progress in Flying Machines. New York: The American Engineer and Railroad Journal, [1894]. New York: M.N. Forney, 1899. See also HathiTrust.

McFarland, Marvin W., ed. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953.
HathiTrust: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001114607