I hadn’t either, until I was reading a magazine article about flight (on a flight!) – and as flying and cars were born around the same time and needed similar equipment, I was intrigued by this man. He has two claims to fame: one is that he designed and made the first engine for an aircraft, thus truly making an aeroplane as opposed to a glider; the second is that he was one of the first to make the engine out of aluminium.
Charlie Taylor was the Wright brothers preferred mechanic!
Charles Edward Taylor was born in 1868 in Illinois, the State that was part of the quartet that became the heart of the American motor trade – the other three being Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. He trained to be a toolmaker and after moving to Dayton in Ohio, where his wife was from, he became a bicycle maker. He joined the Wright brothers through a simple coincidence, his wife’s uncle owned the building that the Wrights rented for their own factory.
As the brothers were getting more and more interested in the concept of powered flight and were spending more time with their gliders, they entrusted their bicycle business to Taylor. The testing done by the Wrights had pushed the boundaries of air control, they had mastered how to make the wings work effectively with rudders and had experimented with different materials. To take the next step forward they needed more power to give them more stability and speed.
At some point Taylor got involved, presumably after seeing some ideas about the engine size, weight and power output. He then designed and built a petrol powered engine using an aluminium block cast at a local factory. The motor was a four cylinder 16 cubic inch design using fuel fed by gravity from a tank suspended above and there were no spark plugs, just opening and closing contact points that caused ignition. It took six weeks to design, build and test before it was fitted to the Wright Flyer I aircraft. Taylor later admitted that the only time he had worked on an engine was a failed attempt to repair a car! Even with this rudimentary knowledge he produced a masterpiece!
However, it was this one item that took the world forward in many ways. The use of aluminium was revolutionary for weight saving and the fact that his engine produced 12hp at 1,000 rpm was a major leap. Much larger motors in cars were producing a lot less! Little did he know at the time that what he had developed was to evolve so rapidly across two burgeoning industries!
He remained with the brothers for many years working for the Wright Company that morphed through Wright-Martin to what is now Curtiss-Wright, so his initial work touched several of the pioneering aero companies in the US. He even tried his hand at real estate ownership in California, however that business failed and he lost much of his savings. Following this troubling time, he ended up back as a mechanic in the Midwest.
The sad thing is that he died back in California in 1956, pretty much broke even though he had received an annuity from Orville Wright. He had been a pioneer but still found work in factories as a mechanic, not really achieving the fame of the people that he helped to make a success. I suspect though, that as a mechanic he was simply seen as a spanner man, not the man he really was: a problem solver and designer of probably one of the most important evolutions in the internal combustion engine.
The Federal Aviation Authority in the US honour him through the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award – recognising lifetime accomplishments for aviation mechanics. You need to have been one for 50 years to qualify!
Taylor was buried in the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in Burbank alongside other notable aviation pioneers.