Museum To Run Wright Brothers’ Engine Replica


The San Diego Air & Space Museum has announced plans to run an exact replica of the engine that powered the Wright brothers’ first historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In commemoration of the 118th anniversary of that flight, the event is scheduled to take place at the museum on Dec. 17, 2021, at 10 a.m. local time. Designed and built for the Wrights by Charles E. Taylor, the original four-cylinder engine was water-cooled, powered by gasoline and had an aluminum crankcase, marking the first time the material had been used in aircraft construction. It weighed in at 180 pounds and produced 12 horsepower.

“Orville and Wilbur Wright and Charles Taylor are three of the giants in aviation innovation and technology,” said San Diego Air & Space Museum President and CEO Jim Kidrick. “By inventing powered flight at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers set all of the amazing accomplishments in aviation and space exploration the world has seen since in motion.”

Located in San Diego, California, the San Diego Air & Space Museum was established in 1961. In addition to its extensive collection of aircraft and aviation artifacts, the museum maintains archives containing more than two million images along with over 5,000 film and audio titles. It is also home to the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.

Kate O'Connor
Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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  1. The engine was the key to powered flight.

    If he had a good engine, I think even Leonardo DaVinci could have gotten off the ground, so to speak. If I recall researchers have been able to get his designs to fly with modern engines.

    The Taylor engine was up to the task, barely, but started the development of the powered aircraft in earnest. Glad it is being celebrated.

  2. For some reason I did a bunch of research on this a couple months ago.

    – aluminum smelting was just recently commercialized
    – the goal was 8 HP, but Taylor achieved 12 HP
    – the first engine ran dry of oil after about a day of testing, and Taylor had to build another, which took a couple of months
    – I found the transmission and mounting also interesting
    – there were 50 HP rotary engines intended for airplanes starting in 1906, but the Wrights were the first to build a complete airplane.

    I think the most amazing thing was that the Wrights essentially had their own privately-funded X-planes program going on, back when nearly everybody was a farmer. A big part of their success was just staying alive, since a lot of pioneers didn’t.

      • Well, the reality is that everybody failed, for millennia.

        Humans did have the basic technology for thousands of years to make gliders strong enough to carry a man using fabric that was glued and sewed, but that didn’t progress until the 1890s.

        Dr. Langley had a ~50 HP rotary engine at the time, but that was likely negated by starting with a seaplane design.

        • Actually his problem was structural, at least on the second attempt. Perhaps controllability in first attempt. (He may have chosen seaplane configuration because he wanted to have water landing place, instead of grass field somewhere.) Just not a good designer/developer.

          The Wright brothers wisely chose an environment in which crashes were less damaging. (the sands of Kitty Hawk) Much of their time was spent learning how to control their designs, piloting took skill.

          So the Wrights used ‘technology demonstrators’ and stepwise development, iterating designs. In winter they studied, made their own airfoil wind tunnel, and modified their craft.

          They found that a formula obtained from a person who made earlier attempts seemed wrong on lift magnitude, so they used their own tunnel data. (In hindsight, they may have not understood a constant in the formula correctly, but eventually they got the job done.)

          Kitty Hawk in the Carolina Outer Banks was also chosen for its wind and privacy.

          The Wrights were good engineers/scientists.

          • The main thing learned from their wind tunnel data was the importance of wing aspect ratio on the lift-to-drag ratio, resulting in the final planform being more like a modern glider and less “stubby.”

            On a good day, the favorable factors of high aspect ratio, low density altitude and low temperature meant that an engine of 8 – 12 HP was enough to power the Flyer. (Early engines varied in power output over time in minutes as temperatures and expansion (tolerances) changed efficiency. So the power could differ by a couple HP every 5 or 10 minutes.)

            I mentioned Dr. Langley having a problem with using a seaplane because of the amount of power needed to get “on the step” and leave the water surface. You need much more power and structural strength than an airplane like the Flyer. Also, Langley almost drowned, a problem the Wrights didn’t have. (One Wright brother was badly injured, but mostly recovered.)

            Note that the Allied nations were ready for WW2 because of air races like the Schneider Cup, where seaplanes competed. But those reached 340 mph, so taking off from water wasn’t a problem.)

  3. When I visited the museum at Kitty Hawk and saw cutaway models of the engine, I was amazed they could get it started, and run long enough before the babbet barrings wore out, to actually make a flight. I I remember correctly carburation was just fuel dripping on to the side of the block to be heated, vaporized and sucked passed the Intake/Exhaust valve. I whish Taylor had of gotten more credit over the years, I can only imagine how hard it was to design, machine, fabricate and tinker with it till it ran.

    • The Wright brothers couldn’t source a suitable available engine, so they started by having the engine block casting outsourced to a local shop.

      Taylor had a 1 HP lathe in the bicycle shop, so he either turned or hand-filed all the parts, in quadruplicate.

      Then after failing to oil it, did it all again. 🙂

      If you look at photos (or re-enacted photos) of the parts, it’s clear even an experienced machinist would have to be dedicated to a month or two of focused machining time. At least the second time around, Taylor would have known it would work when assembled, and the Wrights frequently cannibalized previous work, so I assume some parts got re-used in the new engine.

  4. Ironically, the Langley seaplane model that flew directly off the water was STEAM powered. It was the full scale gas engine version that was catapult-launched. He simply scaled up all his model parts, failing to realize that the weight increases by the cube function when you do that.

  5. The Wrights painted the engine black so any competitors would think it is cast iron instead of aluminum.
    They also painted the wood struts between the wings silver so competitors would think they are metal.
    Learned that when I toured the Wright museum in Dayton last summer.

    • The Wrights were very protective of their designs and technology. They patented most of the designs and actively filed legal actions against competitors for patent infringement. It is kind of amazing to think that they only produced 12 hp out of a 180 pound engine. Compare that to a “modern” air-cooled aircraft engine’s power to weight ratio.

      • Engine weights from Lycoming:

        O-320 B (conical engine mount-160 hp): 277-283 lbs dry weight
        O-320 D (dynafocal engine mount-160 hp): 278-286 lbs dry weight
        O-360 A (dynafocal engine mount – 180 hp): 285-301 lbs dry weight
        O-360 D (conical engine mount – 180 hp): 280-281 lbs dry weight.