Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Wrights Invented What? Lateral Control and John J. Montgomery


           A John J. Montgomery tandem wing glider.
"That sudden thrill of almost horror, something entirely new to me, came just at that moment as I had realized that the balloon had gone and that literally I had to fly for my life....There was an indescribable thrill when I found myself launched on the air and about 4000 feet above the earth. With nothing but those slender and flimsy wings to support me. I was actually flying and I believe that I am the first man on earth who has actually and successfully had that experience...." --1905, Daniel Maloney, 3/4 of a mile up, on his flight of Montgomery's Santa Clara glider.1

  "Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air... Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace...."-- "High Flight" - John Gillespie Magee.

Illustration of Montgomery's Santa Clara glider, 1905, with Daniel Maloney, pilot. The glider was pulled up 4000 feet by balloon, then released to fly with full control to the earth.
"The most daring feat ever attempted."--Octave Chanute, 1905, after the flight of the Santa Clara glider.

"All subsequent attempts in aviation must begin with the Montgomery machine."--Alexander Graham Bell, 1905
The Wrights vs John J. Montgomery
As demonstrated in former posts, Wright advocates believe that the Wright brothers themselves are the best references for what happened in the earliest development of their flyers.That's regardless of their penchant for truth telling--or not. But why would they believe the Wrights are the best references for anything else that happened in aviation, whether they were there or not? The Wrights were not in the crowd of est. 1500 in the spring of 1905 when John J. Montgomery's Santa Clara glider was released from a balloon 4000 feet in the air and was piloted with full lateral control and inherent stability to a safe and gentle landing on earth. And yet early aviation history accepts the  Wrights as the "expert" final word on Montgomery's pioneering achievements.
It may seem astonishing, but it appears the Wrights became the "experts" on aviation history after they convinced much of the world that their attempt to fly in 1903 was the very first manned, controlled, powered, heavier than air flight in all of history. But as stated before, they didn't convince historians of this with witnesses. There were no official witnesses, just some surfmen, a farmer, and a boy, all of whom Orville Wright said didn't know what was going on. ( See Orville Wright letter to Shea 1928 LOC (Library of Congress) under Subject File, Information Requests). They also produced a questionable photograph in 1908 that probably wouldn't be admitted as evidence in a court today. That's not much.
The truth is, there were no officially observed flights until 1908.  There was an attempt to fly in front of reporters in 1904 after they said they had successfully flown, but the Wrights failed publicly and miserably. There were some friends and family members that advocated for them, some verbally, some in writing. And there was their mentor, Octave Chanute, who had really not seen a successful flight, though they try to say he witnessed one on October 15,1904. That one ended in a crash shortly (420 meters) after being catapulted, because it couldn't be stopped from turning, according to Wilbur's own written notes. See notebook below. So it's doubtful it could be called either a controlled or a sustained flight.

Wilbur's notes about the only "flight" that Chanute observed of the Wrights before 1908
Yet Chanute was their strongest advocate and vouched for their honesty.

(Look for Chanute's actual notes, LOC, regarding this flight. I'm having difficulty finding them since they decided to change their format).* It wasn't until August of 1908, that Wilbur finally went public in Europe with some pretty amazing flying for the day. We are told that observers were astonished by Wilbur's lateral control, his coordinated turns, etc. etc. That was convincing. The lateral control with roll historians claim the Wrights discovered by themselves in a flash of inspiration.

However, as stated before, it's a non sequitur that the Wrights' accomplishments, which were demonstrated in the late summer and fall of 1908, proved they were the first to fly with coordinated turns--or even flew, as questioned in this blog, in 1903. To a reasonable person, that should be obvious. It also doesn't prove when they had achieved sustainability, control, and balance, before 1908. Only that by 1908 they had it. At least, up to a point. However, the planes both Wrights flew in 1908 weren't the same plane they supposedly flew in 1903, and they had engines that were different and more powerful. The Wrights had had five years to improve, using technology that could have been developed by others. Even their claimed lateral control.

By 1909, less than a year after their debut, there were a lot of people flying, using various forms of lateral control. The Wrights claimed they were all copying themselves. (Curtiss used ailerons on his "June Bug" before the Wrights' debut.) In 1909 the Wrights started suing anyone and everyone for infringing on their 1906 glider patent for wing warping. At that point, their chief mentor, Octave Chanute, could no longer support them. To the Wrights' chagrin, he came out publicly that he didn't believe the Wrights had a case in court, indeed, that lateral control was an old art. Chanute had stated so to the Wrights privately before in his letters to them.

Chanute had been aviation's historian for many years and knew most of what was going on in the early development of flight. Was Chanute correct? If he was, we should be able to point to examples of pioneers that Chanute was aware of who had achieved earlier lateral control. We can. The most stellar example is John Joseph Montgomery.

John Joseph Montgomery, 1858-1911, "the grandfather of flight."

Fred E. C. Culick, professor emeritus at Caltech and member of the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics), admits that Montgomery had developed lateral control, but states that he and the Wrights had developed their "break throughs" independently, parallel discoveries as sometimes happens. It's an easy conclusion to come to, because there was nearly a whole continent separating them, the Wrights in the east, Montgomery in California. The following paragraph is a quotation of Culick from his treatise "What the Wright Brothers Did and Did Not Understand About Flight Mechanics—In Modern Terms" AIAA copyright 2001. Page 2

 "Nearly all of the Wrights’ predecessors and their contemporaries were preoccupied with constructing intrinsically stable aircraft, essentially large model airplanes. Moreover, none progressed far enough to become concerned with maneuverability and hence controllability was not an issue for them. The sole exception was J.J. Montgomery (1858–1911) who, already in the 1890’s, experimented with wing-warping for control in roll (Spearman 1967). His work was not publicized and the Wrights independently invented their method of wing-warping. It’s interesting, but not incontrovertible proof of their independence that Wilbur used a biplane design to incorporate warping whereas Montgomery worked only with monoplane gliders. More to the point, Montgomery apparently never considered constructing a powered aircraft and didn’t face the general problems of three-axis stability and control." (emphasis mine)

But according to Harwood and Fogel in "Quest for Flight," Culick is wrong. He's correct about Montgomery's control in roll. But as for the rest, it's the false mantra of the Wright historians. When Culick wrote that paragraph, according to "Quest for Flight," he must have been unaware of a huge chunk of aviation history. Of course.The Wrights had  helped to write much of that history out, as they did most anything that competed with their version.

John Montgomery was experimenting with a glider equipped with hinged surfaces on the wings for control as early as 1883. According to John and his brother James, they successfully flew his controlled glider at Otay Mesa near San Diego as far as 600 feet, with John aboard. This was nineteen years before the Wrights experimented with their "wing warping" on their 1902 glider. It was at least fifteen years before Wilbur wrote the Smithsonian for information on aviation and began his serious investigations. Montgomery's successes were a result of years of observation of birds in flight, study, scientific experimentation, and even tests with wind and water flow.

It's important to note that John's flights were no secret from the Wrights. In 1893 John attended the historic International Conference on Aerial Navigation in Chicago, organized by Octave Chanute and Dr. Albert F. Zahm, where he gave two talks, sharing information about much of his experimental work. John continued to communicate with Chanute afterwards, even visiting him at his home. They began a correspondence, where he shared  progress in his work. This is all documented.  It is also documented that Chanute shared Montgomery's information with the Wright brothers in their personal correspondence, even at certain points when Montgomery asked him to keep information confidential because he was applying for a patent. 2

 The Wrights were granted their patent for lateral control on a glider in 1906. But in 1905
 Montgomery burst on the scene in California with spectacular public demonstrations of lateral control and what's more, the inherent stability of his gliders. And they were in front of hundreds to thousands of people. At Santa Clara University, John released his tandem wing glider called the Santa Clara from a balloon nearly four thousand feet in the air. Piloted by the daring Daniel Maloney, who had been an aerial performer, the glider somersaulted, pirouetted, banked 45 and 90 degrees, turned in all aspects, including figure eights, and demonstrated amazing lateral control in all dimensions. The news was highly publicized. Papers all the way to England published articles about Montgomery's sensational displays of flight.

One of the many  newspaper articles about John Montgomery's 1905
 public demonstrations of lateral control. Sorry, this is difficult to read.

..."one great problem of aerial navigation from the beginning had been that of controlled flight and maintained equilibrium...[which] for the first time in history it was their privilege to witness"--copied from the Los Angeles Times article pictured above.

The Wrights monitored the news about Montgomery. Amos Root reported to them in writing. After the public flights, Chanute wrote for and obtained sensitive information about the gliders that Montgomery in trust shared with him, and he forwarded the information to the Wrights without telling Montgomery.3 One might argue that they had already written up and applied for their patent by 1905. But between 1903 and the time the Wrights received their patent, changes were made in their patent. "Aeronautics" Oct. 1909, p. 122 and123, and 164 "outlines radical changes in the Wright Brothers Application for a Patent on a 'Flying Machine' and their attempts to amend it after the news of Prof. John J. Montgomery's successful flights in March and April 1905.

Chanute's falling out with the Wrights during their lawsuits, that claimed all planes infringed on their 1906 patent, wasn't the only rift. Spratt and Huffaker both testified against the Wrights on behalf of Glenn Curtiss, whom the Wrights were suing. Another lost friend was Dr. Zahm, a witness for Curtiss. Chanute actually consulted with Curtiss prior to the case.

It would seem obvious that for these reasons and others, there were typical Wright attempts to discredit Octave Chanute as well as Spratt, Huffaker, Curtiss, Zahm, and others by the Wrights and their historians, . Today Chanute is called the "old man" in their descriptions, a disrespectful implication that brings to mind a doddering senior who has lost his brilliance, if he ever had any. The Wrights thoroughly discounted any credit Chanute might have received for the assistance he gave them. (Much as in the cases of Huffaker and Spratt)

 In his "historical novel" "The Bishop's Boys," Tom Crouch of the Smithsonian states the following:
  "Then there was this wing-twisting business. Chanute coined the term "wing warping" to describe the Wright technique, but he did not grasp the basic principle. He never would....Chanute's career had limited his thinking."
And on the next page:
"The brothers took Chanute's measure very early on. Technically, they had already gone beyond him."4
(How can anyone believe this nonsense?)

 As for Montgomery, himself, the Wrights, especially Orville later, went all out to prove his work inconsequential or even a collection of fairy tales.The propaganda peaked in 1946 when a movie "Gallant Journey" starring Glenn Ford was made by Columbia pictures about Montgomery's work. The attacks against the filming were orchestrated by Orville. His faithful biographer Fred Kelly, who often served as his lead trumpet, composed a plethora of letters trying to discredit Montgomery and to stop the filming of the movie. He called the Montgomery history "an unscrupulous falsification of history." Earl Findley, Orville's loudspeaker and editor of "U. S. Air Services" magazine penned a 1946 article about Montgomery called the "The Montgomery Myth." Findley had similarly attacked the Langley trials of Glenn Curtiss, as well as the flights of Gustave Whitehead for Orville. (Note: His 1945 published article about Whitehead with Orville as author was called "The Mythical Whitehead Flights.") On the other hand, Orville ironically claimed that Montgomery, like Curtiss, had stolen his secrets. Even though the film was completed and released, the Wrights (Orville at this time), with the power of "experts" associated with their names, were mainly successful in getting John  J. Montgomery written out of history.5

So we add the name of John Montgomery to the long list of aviators whom the "expert" Wrights discredited. Shouldn't this be unacceptable to reputable American historians? Very few appear to have the courage to stand up and tell the truth, or actually back those who do.

For more reading on John Joseph Montgomery, including the Wrights' attempts to defame him, see "Quest for Flight" by Craig Harwood and Gary Fogel. This book is highly documented with many primary sources. It belongs on a shelf of every serious aviation historian.

Award winning book on Montgomery's pioneering contributions to aviation

1. Craig S. Harwood and Gary B. Fogel, Quest for Flight (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012),  100

2. Ibid, 94-97

3. Ibid

4. Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W.W. Norton and Co. 1989), 200, 201

5. Harwood,  Quest for Flight, 167-170.

*Thanks to Simine Short, author of "Locomotive to Aeromotive: Octave Chanute and the Transportation Revolution," we have been provided with Octave Chanute's statement regarding the Wright flight of October 15, 1904, in Chanute's own handwriting. The original is on file at the Library of Congress.

I note that the brothers and Chanute agree that the flyer remained in the air about 1377 feet before it crashed. Some might call this a sustained flight, even though it needed the assistance of a catapult to take off, was not in control, and suffered considerable damage when it crashed (a week's worth of repairs). It is interesting that Chanute doesn't mention that the pilot was unable to control the plane. He might not have been told. But Wilbur does state in his notebook entry, reproduced above, that the pilot, some say Orville, was unable to stop it from turning.  I don't believe the 6 mph cross wind is the reason for the crash, because the Wrights, with good control, should have been able to head into the wind after take off, and they weren't confined to a runway to land. 

In contrast to the Wrights' flyer troubles, Maloney affirmed, regarding Montgomery's Santa Clara, "...the aeroplane so perfectly responded to every tug of the cords." page 100, "Quest for Flight," cited above.

This was not the only time that the Wrights' problems with control were mentioned in Wright accounts. Such problems plagued them and is one of the probable explanations why they were unwilling to go public. Please see post "Wright Replicas and Reconstructions" in this blog.

(Note: For more by the author of this blog, please see

To be continued....

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