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What I learned today

…from reading David McCullough’s excellent work, “The Wright Brothers”:

In addition to all of the other fascinating details about the work of Orville and Wilbur, I learned something about the IC engine used by the brothers to power their Wright Flyer. Once they were ready to proceed from gliders to powered flight, they solicited bids from 6 automobile companies for an engine that would meet their specifications. Only one of those six companies even bothered to reply, and the engine that this company offered was far heavier than what the Wrights had specified.

So, although they had no experience whatsoever with IC engines, they decided to build their own engine, and it turned out to be an odd mixture of high-technology (for the time) and traditional technology. They obtained a large block of cast aluminum from the newly-formed Alcoa company, and with the help of a machinist in their bicycle shop, they proceeded to build their own engine from scratch! Their machinist did the actual work, but the brothers–sans any experience with IC engines–did the design work on the engine.

The block of aluminum was bored-out into 4 cylinders, each with a 4 inch stroke and a 4 inch bore. The engine had the typical “make or break” ignition of that period, and did not even have a carburetor. Instead the gravity-fed gasoline dripped into a chamber attached to the intake manifold where it mixed–sort of–with air before being drawn into the cylinders. They fashioned cast iron cylinder liners and piston rings, as well as a crankshaft and connecting rods made from unspecified materials.

That primitive fuel system proved to be a major problem, as the mixture turned out to be so rich that the bearings were destroyed, and the engine seized.
Within two months, they obtained a new block of aluminum from Alcoa and built an improved engine that was able to run w/o any problems. And, their engine weighed less than 200 lbs! There may have been other aluminum engines at the time, but I am not aware of them.

Those of you who have some background with aviation are sure to love this book, but I think that any motorhead would find it interesting.

Four inch bore and four inch stroke in a four cylinder engine = 201 cubic inches.

A lot of early aviation engines had no throttle, the engine was either on or off. On many of them, the Gnome rotary in particular, the exhaust valve stayed open for a large percentage of the intake stroke letting the engine suck fresh air into the cylinder through the exhaust port. This served to cool the exhaust valve making the engine more reliable. To compensate for this fresh air dilution, the intake mixture was extra rich. And it was also the reason you couldn’t throttle the engine. Attempting to throttle an engine designed this way results in a lean mixture in the cylinders.

“Four inch bore and four inch stroke in a four cylinder engine = 201 cubic inches.”

And, it allegedly produced 12 horsepower, although the book does not specify how this output was determined.

McCullough writes excellent, well researched history books that read better than any novel. Thanks for the heads up @VDCdriver. Been so busy with the deconstruction / reconstruction of the house haven’t had time to hit the library or book store lately But gotta make time for this book. …still reading, still learning…

Reliability? I bet life span was measured in minutes before pilot crashed due to structural failure of wing/fuselage or zero manuvering capability and pilot fell out of sky.

I agree. Reliability always starts for the short term. Minutes then hours then days then weeks. I’m using my first rebuilt engines as a timeline.

Sad to say, I think that McCullough is losing his touch to some extent, or perhaps his editor(s) aren’t doing their job properly because–although the book isn’t badly-written–its writing style is definitely not up to the level of his previous books, IMHO.

My first exposure to McCullough was with his book on the construction of The Brooklyn Bridge by NJ’s Roebling family (who later manufactured the famed Mercer automobile), and I enjoyed that book so much that I have re-read it on several occasions.

His biography of Harry Truman was also great.
More recently, I enjoyed The Greater Journey, which tells the story of American artists who went to Paris in the 19th Century in order to complete their education.

The Wright Brothers–while still both enjoyable and informative–is just not written as well as his other books, IMHO.

(And, just to keep this on an automotive footing, the aforementioned Harry Truman drove a '53 Chrysler New Yorker after leaving The White House!)

I knew a little about this engine. Basically that the Wrights designed their own and not much more. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio so it was pretty much impossible NOT to learn about the Wright brothers! They were truly brilliant.

If they had added an HHO system, I’m sure it would have been much, much more efficient. Oh yeah, that’s the ticket!

It’s just…sad…that the brilliance of HHO wasn’t known to pioneers like the Wright Brothers. If they had been aware of this technology, they wouldn’t have had to pay that exorbitant 10 cents per gallon for their gasoline!


What is an HHO system, please? (Thanks for the heads up about the book.)

Mr. Sanders made the HHO comment with tongue in cheek. HHO is a total scam although there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of naive dupes who will buy into that bogus theory.

Look at the repair and maintenance topics and scroll down for the recent one related to HHO.
There will be enough info there to allow you to get a grasp on the subject and there is also a sterling example of the above mentioned naive dupe…

I’ll have to check that book out as I’m a combo gearhead and aviation freak along with being a sponge for the written word. Thank you for the lead VDCdriver.

HHO is a scam that uses power from the alternator to electrolyze water into H2 and O2 (which they call HHO) and pipes the gases into the air intake to be burned. Net energy is negative (TANSTAAFL). plus the mixture is very combustable.

The main reason it is so popular is that the users regard the power from the alternator as free.

Ah, now that @BillRussell defined it I well remember that thread! Just hadn’t remembered what HHO stood for and so didn’t catch that the refetence was tongue in cheek. :slight_smile: My bad.

The OP doesn’t mention it, but I expect the WB engine must have been air cooled. I wonder if there were many air cooled engines in those days? Weren’t most cars by then run with water cooled engines? I wonder what methods they used to keep their newly invented engine cool?

no. water cooled, but by water evaporation, not circulation:

The Wright engine was a bit crude, even by the standards of the day. It had four horizontal inline cylinders. The 4-inch bore, 4-inch stroke, cast-iron cylinders fit into a cast aluminum crankcase that extended outward to form a water jacket around the cylinder barrels. The engine was cooled by water from a narrow vertical water reservoir mounted on a forward strut. The system was not a radiator in the typical sense, for the water did not circulate. The reservoir simply replenished the water jacket as the water evaporated from it.

Interesting … thanks for posting …

That’s an interesting question, George. The Kitty Hawk flight was in 1903, and the Model T wasn’t introduced until 1908. Cars in 1903 were pretty much hand built by individual small shops, each to their own design, and engine designs were “all over the map”. Builders used whatever was locally available. That was long before air freight and electronic ordering was even dreamed of, and things were still designed by innovators and made by craftsmen.

Air cooled engines were actually common in automobiles right up until about 1969 (in the U.S.) when emissions mandates came into being. I think the last air cooled Beetle was sold in the U.S. in '69, although I believe they were still made and sold in Mexico after that year.

Air cooled engines are still in use in prop aircraft, where low weight is paramount.

Actually, the air cooled Beetles were still sold in the U.S. through the 1979 model year. They were struggling with emission control requirements back then so VW went to AFC fuel injection in 1975 which bought them a few more years of compliant sales.

I’m amazed. It was apparently later than I remembered.

The years fly by. I guess it must have been the Corvair I was remembering. That was produced until '69.