Wilbur and Orville Wright are famous for building and flying the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft (though there are many who claim Alberto Santos-Dumont was actually first, on a technicality). The bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio did remarkable seminal work in aerodynamics, and built many gliders before settling on the design for their first Wright Flyer. But despite their engineering acumen, there was one thing they couldn’t do: build an engine. For that, they turned to perhaps the greatest unsung hero of the dawn of aviation, a self-taught mechanic named Charlie Taylor.

The first flight December 17, 1903 (Library of Congress)

Taylor worked as a toolmaker before the Wrights hired him in 1896 to repair bicycles. He soon started running the shop while the Wrights were away flying their gliders in North Carolina. When the brothers could find no engine that was light enough yet powerful enough for their flyer, they asked Taylor to build one. In just six weeks, based on sketches provided by the brothers, Taylor built a four-cylinder engine with a water-cooled cast aluminum block. Fuel was fed by gravity and passed through a rudimentary carburetor. The mixture of fuel and air was vaporized by heat from the crankcase, and the wooden propellers were turned by chains (the Wrights were bicycle builders, after all). The block and crankcase together weighed 152 pounds. The Wrights asked for at least 8 hp, and Taylor’s engine delivered 12 hp. It was the world’s first successful aircraft engine.

The 1903 engine, reconstructed in 1928 (National Park Service)

Taylor became the chief mechanic of the fledgling Wright Company when it was founded in 1909 before moving to California in 1920, but he came back to Ohio in 1936 to help restore the Wright’s bicycle shop and family home. He returned to California in 1941 to work in the defense industry, but a heart attack in 1945 left him destitute. When members of the aviation industry heard of his plight, they raised money to move him to a private facility. Taylor died in 1955, and was buried at the Portal of Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in Burbank, California.

Taylor with a scale model of his engine in 1947 (author unknown)

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