THE INFORMATION IN THIS ARTICLE CAN BE FOUND IN THE BIOGRAPHY “CHARLES E. TAYLOR: 1868-1956 THE WRIGHT BROTHERS MECHANICIAN” WRITTEN BY Howard R. DuFour with Peter J. Unitt
As AMTs of today we work with many different types of people who make up our profession. We know much about our fellow co-workers, both personally and professionally. But have you ever stopped to think about who the FIRST aircraft mechanic was? Where he came from? Or even how he became the first aircraft mechanic to begin with? With May 24th being recognized as AMT Day in almost all 50 United States, Commonwealths and Territories, and a National AMT Day having been passed by Congress this April 30th, in honor of this first aircraft mechanic, perhaps we should take the time to learn who created our craft and how it got started.
The first aircraft mechanic was Charles Edward Taylor. But who WAS he? Where did he come from? With most historic figures, dates and times are thrown at us that we never remember. Sure Charles E. Taylor was born on May 24th, 1868 in a log cabin a few miles east of Decatur, Illinois and he died on January 30th, 1956. But Charles E. Taylor is much more than just dates.
Charlie’s father, Willet Bogart Taylor, was a hog farmer. His mother was Elmira (Gulick) Taylor. As most children of the mid-19th century followed their father’s career path Charlie did not. An epidemic of hog cholera caused Charlie’s father to kill his source of providing for his family and thus relocated his family to Lincoln, Nebraska. Here Charlie went to school through the seventh grade. And as a youth he earned money by printing calling cards and programs, he also worked as an errand boy at the Nebraska State Journal. Eventually he worked in the bindery where he would learn to work with hand tools and machinery. After completing his education he worked for a surveyor in California who was laying out part of the city of Los Angeles.
Future jobs included making rubber stamps, painted signs, cut stencils and general repair work. Charlie eventually opened his own machine shop for about a year and a half, but closed it due to lack of business. In 1982 Charlie met a beautiful girl named Henriette Webbert, whom he asked to marry shortly thereafter. As fate would have it Henrietta’s family was friends with Bishop Milton Wright who had two sons named Wilbur and Orville. And an extra twist of coincidence is that Henrietta’s Uncle C. Webbert owned a building which in 1897 the Wright brothers rented for their bicycle business. The stage was being set for history to be made.
In 1896 Charlie moved to Dayton where he found work making farm machinery which included engines and bicycles. In 1898 Charlie once again opened a machine shop with another machinist. In this new business Charlie did general repair work and bicycle repair and machine tool work. Charlie would buy repair parts for bicycles from the Wright Cycle Company. And eventually the Wright’s subcontracted work to Charlie. In 1898 Charlie sold the business for a large profit and he went onto to work for the Dayton Electric Company.
By this time the Wright brothers were spending ever increasing amounts of time fine tuning their passion for solving the problem of flight and they needed someone to run their bicycle shop. The Wright’s used their sister, Katherine, and brother, Lorin, to run the business but they needed a person on a more permanent basis to repair bicycles so they could continue with their experiments. Fate again comes into play because on one “hot June Saturday night” Charles E. Taylor, who is a machinist, stops into the Wright’s shop. He inquires about a job since his job at the electric company was paying poorly. The Wright’s offered Charlie $16.50 a week and without knowing it the three were preparing to enter history!
The Wright brothers eventually came to the decision that their glider technology was ready for the next step. But where could they find an engine in 1903 that had to meet their calculations of producing 8 horsepower and not weighing more than 180 pounds? In talks with Charlie they expressed their wants that the necessary horsepower should be distributed among four cylinders with a bore and stroke of 4 inches each. But at this time in history engines were relegated to automobiles and they were very heavy and the power-to-weight ratio was unacceptable. Eventually the Wright’s turned to Charlie and asked if he could build the engine.
With the Wright brother’s calculations Charlie set out to build in six weeks, with nothing more than a lathe, drill press and some simple hand tools the world’s first aircraft engine! But due to Charlie’s skill and craftsmanship the engine he produced exceed the requirements set out by Orville and Wilbur. The engine that Charlie built produced 13 horsepower and weighed only 150 pounds.
Thus on December 17, 1903 at a place sandy spot called Kitty Hawk in North Carolina mankind conquered the problem of controlled, powered flight. But what is remarkable is that having achieved this feat Charles E. Taylor did not seek the limelight for his contributions and achievements. Much like present day AMTs Charlie simply looked at the task before him and set out to achieve it.
With the Wright brother’s new invention Charlie had created the profession that many of you reading this article have entered… the Aircraft Maintenance Technician. But Charlie’s place in history does not end here. No, not by any means! Charlie stayed with the Wright brothers building future engines for the Wright Flyer models.
Charles E. Taylor not only became the world’s first aircraft mechanic but he also became the world’s first airport manager. When the Wright brothers needed an area to test their new models at a place closer to home than North Carolina, out at a place called Huffman Prairie, Charlie constructed the first aircraft hangar and he had to deal with issues like barbed wire fencing hilly hummocks, frequent rain storms and crosswinds.
Charlie also became the first “bumped passenger” and if not for this “first” he would have earned the statistic of becoming the first aircraft fatality. On September 17, 1907 Orville invited Charlie to join him on a trial proving flight for the US Government. But at the last moment he was “bumped” by Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. Upon Orville’s fourth circuit the Flyer crashed and Lt. Selfridge later died of injuries from the crash.
Charlie went to France to accompany Wilbur Wright as the Wrights demonstrated their new invention to assemble the crated craft and be on hand if anything went wrong.
In 1911 Charlie was earning $18.00 a week. So when Calbraith Perry (Cal) Rodgers purchased a Wright B (Exhibition Model) in order to attempt to fly cross country within 30 days and win the $50,000.00 prize he wanted the best mechanic possible. He hired Charlie, after having the consent of the brothers for a leave of absence, for $10.00 a day! The aircraft was known as the “Vin-Fiz” after the first bottled grape drink. Charlie had his work cut out for him since Cal crashed the aircraft numerous times but Charlie was there to do his job.
In 1936 Henry Ford bought the building the Wright brothers had their bicycle shop in and hired Charlie to restore it to the condition it was in when they made history.
Charles E. Taylor survived both Wright brothers but in his later years life was tough on Charlie. Although Orville and Wilbur willed Charlie a yearly stipend his last years found Charlie nearly destitute and he eventually wound up in the Los Angeles County Hospital which dealt with “charity cases”. A journalist wrote about Charlie’s condition and the Aircraft Industries Association assumed full financial responsibility for his lifetime care in the Farhill Sanitarium in the San Fernando foothills where he was kept well care of till his death on January 30, 1956.
Charles E. Taylor was an ordinary man who deserves his rightful place in aviation history as well as in any conversation about aircraft maintenance. Like today’s skilled AMTs Charlie did not seek the limelight or search for fame and fortune. He was a craftsman who created a profession that thousands of men and women have followed in. Charles Edward Taylor is truly aviation’s original “Unsung Hero”.