Related: Some Aeronautical Experiments
The most notable conference held during the Columbian Exposition was “The International Conference on Aerial Navigation” from August 1-4, 1893. This conference took place at a World’s Fair which displayed over 300 horse-drawn carriages and only two automobiles. By the turn of the century, there were enough cars on the street to regulate them.
The conference was headed by Octave Chanute, a Chicago railway engineer. When he retired from his railroad career in 1883, he decided to devote some leisure time to furthering the new science of aviation. He published his findings in a series of articles in The Railroad and Engineering Journal from 1891 to 1893, which were then re-published in the influential book Progress in Flying Machines in 1894. This was the most systematic global survey of fixed-wing heavier-than-air aviation research published up to that time. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Chanute organized in collaboration with Albert Zahm a highly successful International Conference on Aerial Navigation.
While it’s known that Wilbur and Orville Wright (as well as Orville’s friend Paul Laurence Dunbar) visited the World’s Columbian Exposition during the summer of 1893, it has never been unambiguously established that either or both of them attended any of the meetings or sessions of the Conference. The Wright Brothers did contact the head of the conference, Octave Chanute, as they read his Progress in Flying Machines.
In his contribution to the Conference, Alexander Graham Bell wrote that the “flying machine would be an accomplished fact before the end of the century, at most before the end of ten years.” Bell also observed that the lighter-than-air (balloons) approach would not be the most successful; that the flying machine of the future would have a greater specific gravity than air. He foresaw that flying machines would be heavier-than-air and would be flying by 1903, and he understood that the problem of human flight would be solved by “practical scientists” – a very apt description of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Chanute was in contact with the Wright brothers starting in 1900, when Wilbur Wright wrote to him after reading Progress in Flying Machines, written after the conference. Chanute helped to publicize the Wright brothers’ work, and provided consistent encouragement, visiting their camp near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1901, 1902, and 1903. The Wrights and Chanute exchanged hundreds of letters between 1900 and 1910. Chanute deeply believed that the advancement of flight science must be the work of many. He corresponded internationally and encouraged these pioneers. He was a special friend and mentor to the Wright brothers.
!n 1903 the Wright Brothers made their historic flight. On that day, the Wright brother’s sister wired Octave Chaunte in his Chicago home saying, “The boys did it.”
Progress in Flying Machines
Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1893
A conference on aerial navigation was held in the afternoon at which O. Chanute presided. In his opening address he said the conference was not looking for new schemes but had met to consider facts demonstrated by experiments. While the commercial success of the flying machine is not yet to be discerned the elements of eventual success have accumulated in the last half century. The conditions as to resistance, lifting power, propellers, and motors are pretty well known. A number of papers were read and illustrated by diagrams.