Batteries/Carbon Zinc/Wright Brothers 031201

It All Started With A Battery

By Donald Georgi
Micrografx Picture Publisher 6.0 ImageOne hundred years ago on Decemeber 17th, 1903, this photo, set up by Orville Wright and snapped by John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil lifesaving station was taken.1 Orville became the first man to take off, control and land an airplane powered by a gasoline engine, “the (1903 Wright) Flyer.” It was started by manually spinning the props and providing spark from four dry cells connected to the breaker type ignition (which are in the box with wires seen in the lower right corner of the photo along with a shovel and can of grease.) After the engine starts, the battery connection is removed and the follow-on electric current for ignition is supplied by an engine mounted magneto.

“ If I have seen further, it is by standing of the shoulders of giants...” exclaimed Sir Issac Newton in describing his success  in developing the laws of motion, stopping momentarily to invent the Calculus as a needed tool to manipulate the description of mechanics. The world has ever after used his discoveries to develop ever more complex technologies as a never ending stairway of progress which, while often  heralded as beneficial, has required that combination of reason,  knowledge and kindness to provide the world with true advancements from electrical devices to nuclear energy.

Similarly, Wilbur and Orville Wright “stood on the shoulders of giants” as they methodically developed the tools to become the first people to fly. Their invention of the airplane, which has its 100th anniversary  this month,  was also created by that peculiar combination of curiosity, regimen and determination which has extended the steps of man to the air, to the moon and, someday with equal dedication, to a more peaceful and  healthy life.

The giants of pioneering flight included Otto Lilienthal. His work with gliders resulted in his death in a machine in 1896, but it  stimulated Wilbur and Orville to investigate the possibility of  “aerial navigation.2” After four years of research and experimentation, Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute, an accomplished civil engineer, aeronautical historian and builder of manned gliders. His writing stated: “I conclude that his (Lillenthal’s) failure was due chiefly to the inadequacy of his methods and of his apparatus.4” Wilbur and Orville told George Turner in an interview after their European demonstrations, “We are not mechanics; we are scientists.5” The brothers used hands-on practical methods with experimentation which we would classify today as genius engineering. In their early years, they  learned the printing trade, which provided them with comfortable income and the insight to mechanisms to begin inventive ways to improve and create machines. They built their own presses and even built one for another printer.3 In 1887, the safety bicycle was invented capturing the fancy of the U.S. public and enough of Wilbur’s and Orville’s interest to open a shop. First they sold bikes built by others but soon featured superior bikes of their own design and manufacture. They designed and built welding machines and built a single cylinder natural gas engine to power their machine tools. The world of mechanical devices was provided to satisfy their insatiable curiosity and ingenuity.
Micrografx Picture Publisher 6.0 ImageWithout valid pilot’s licenses, the Wright Brothers invented, flew and supplied the world with airplanes. Of course pilot’s licenses did not exist and would not be a requirement of aviation for many years. On June 29th, 1940 the Civil Aeronautics Authority felt a need to recognize the Wright’s success and issued Honorary Pilot Certificate Number 1 shown here to Orville Wright. Today, the certificate hangs on the wall in the Engineers Club of Dayton (Ohio.) This Club was founded by Col. Edward A. Deeds and Charles F. Kettering. Together they had developed the automotive self-starter which made autos functional to this day. As a Dayton resident and historic inventor, Orville Wright was the President of the Engineers Club in 1924-1925. The displays of early Wright Engines, nuclear batteries, replicas of pioneer jet engines and many other engineering marvels make the Engineers Club a highlight of Dayton which also is home to other Wright Brothers facilities and the famous Air Force Museum. The author was privileged to visit the Club and to take this picture through the kind help of his business associates and lifelong friends: Dale Martin, Ken Quinter and Jim Wood (who facilitated the reunion and tour.)+
As Newton had recognized the need to invent the Calculus as a tool of his discovery, the Wright brothers recognized the need for a lightweight, power source to move the airplane through the sky. Steam had shown weight limitations, and electrics had no practical solution, so the Wrights decided to use a gasoline powered engine. Since none could be found to meet their power to weight requirements, they decided to build their own and with the hands-on genius of their creative machinist/mechanic, Charlie E. Taylor, the team designed and built the lightweight gasoline engine necessary to spin their  personally developed propellers. Unlike the problems of flight equilibrium, Wilbur and Orville considered the construction of the crucial engine as staightforward so as not to interfere with the investigative methods of flight which they pursued with model dynamics, wind tunnels, and gliders. Perhaps their earlier experience in building a one cylinder natural gas engine to power their machine tools gave them the confidence to extend the design to four cylinders. Construction of the engine was not an aviator’s ‘piece of cake;’ the first engine on its second run overheated, cracking the block casting, thus requiring a new casting. As they were assembling and testing the 1903 Flyer at Kitty Hawk, engine runups had such vibrations that the tubular shafts which transmitted power to the propellers, were damaged, repaired and finally had to be replaced with solid spring steel shafts.

The automobile, invented in 1769, had a steam engine which had only four years before been fully identified by James Watt. While steam engines were the heavy workhorses of transportation and agriculture, the lighter Otto cycle gasoline engine invented in 1876 had a quarter of a century of experience behind it at the time Wilbur and Orville chose it for their power plant. Autos, primarily powered by batteries, were beginning to use the gasoline engine, a technology with flourishing growth. On January 7, 1902, Robert Bosch registered his patent for a high-Voltage magneto and went on to develop  the spark plug later that year.

But, the Wright engine would not utilize the newer technology of ‘Jump-spark’ ignitions; possibly the Brothers may have been more comfortable with the older, more proven technology and possibly because some parts could be machined and off the shelf parts more easily purchased. By the year 1906, there was still a great deal of duality in choosing either the jump-spark or make-and-break ignitions5. Either version requires inductance provided by a coil so that at the time of sparking, the additional energy which had been stored in the coil’s collapsing magnetic field can promote a ‘hotter’spark. But, the jump-spark ignitions with their dual circuits, the secondary being high Voltage, was fraught with leakage currents due to the early development state of insulation for wires and components. On the other hand, the required supply Voltage of the make-and-break circuitwas higher than the required primary Voltage of the jump-spark ignitions and required a mechanism inside the cylinder to move the contacts to produce the spark at the right time. The perceived view was that the make-and-break type of ignition produced a hotter spark but was usually found in designs which did not utilize spark advance or retard while running. Whatever setting was found best before starting the engine was used in the operation while running. Takeoff, cruise and landing had the same ‘power setting’ for  the 1903 Wright engine. These technological limitations give today’s aviator an appreciation of the high level of piloting skill which Wilbur and Orville had to develop in order to control the 1903 Flyer, since power settings and engine operating points are a necessary pilot selections in flight control of today’s piston driven aircraft.

Not only was the spark advance preset, but the fuel flow, metered by the valve in the fuel line, was also pre-set to the best flow rate for the engine. Carburetion for the 1903 engine was rudimentary, achieved by mixing fuel gravitationally fed from the 1.5 quart fuel tank via two valves. One was to adjust the flow of gas to the engine and the other was a shutoff valve to allow the pilot to stop the engine. This fuel would drip into the manifold which, if hot, would cause the fuel to vaporize. As the piston moved down on the intake, a spring loaded intake valve would open to allow the fuel/air mixture to enter the cylinder. In the top of the compression cycle, a set of breaker points would open, producing a spark which ignited the gasoline which would   then push  the cylinder down for the power stroke. Since the pressure of the power stroke is far above atmosphere, the spring  retained intake valve will not open as the piston moves downward; instead it waits to open in the following downstroke after the exhaust has cleared the cylinder.

The breaker had to have a source of electrical current, and the first flight photo showed batteries, which remained on the ground. So how does the engine obtain continuous electric current for ignition while in the air? BD first asked Dr. Rubin Battino,  who has retired from the chemistry faculty at Wright State University. He and fellow retirees have obtained  funding from Wright State to build a replica of the 1903 Flyer. He said that his sources indicated the breaker points to be platinum, and that the timing was adjustable. Photographs clearly showed an engine mounted magneto. But, the history and facts of the batteries was still not fully known. (Ed note: the term, ‘magneto,’ has been used for a rotating generator which has the field made up of permanent magnets10 and would usually produce direct current through the commutation at the armature. By contrast, a dynamo has the field excited by windings circulating a current  from an external electrical source, again usually producing direct current through commutation. An alternator is a rotating electrical generator producing single or multiphase current with either permanent magnet excitation or electromagnetically generated fields. Commutation with continuous rings develops alternating currents as the poles of the armature rotate past the stator poles.)

Greg Cone8 of The Wright Experience, who is duplicating the engine for the replica of the 1903 Flyer which will reproduce the historic flight on December 17th anniversary at Kill Devil Hill, provided BD with the details of the magneto and confirmed the breaker ignition and battery use. Mr. Cone said  that the 1903 Wright engine had a  low Voltage magneto on board which was driven by a five inch disk connected to the 15 inch flywheel to produce the current for the spark of each of the four cylinders. The generator had a nameplate rating of 10 Volts at 4 Amps.(Ed. Note:The Wright Experience Flyer was certified by the FAA at the Countdown to Kitty Hawk Pavilion on August 1st, 2003. The EAA Couintdown to Kitty Hawk is presented by Ford Motor Company. Kudos to you, Ford!)

But, before the engine is running, breaker spark is required to initiate the first detonations before the generator has sufficient output to provide the continuing sparks. The solution probably was easily observed by the Wright Brothers in piston engines used in autos at the time, so they most likely followed conventional wisdom and purchased off the shelf dry cells to provide the starting current.

With the Wright photo having the battery box, the story unfolds to tell that at the heart of the starting of the first engine of the first airplane on the first flight is a set of  four batteries. These batteries were most likely Zinc-carbon which had been discovered by Leclanche’ in 1866 in wet form, but first constructed in dry form by Gassner in 18887.

Although aircraft engine building was new to Wilbur and Orville, batteries in practical use were not. These bicycle pioneers undoubtedly provided the new craze of cycling with an equally new craze of electric lights, mounted on the cycles and powered by dry cells. The website for the Flashlight Museum ( shows an 1899 and 1900 Ever Ready wooden bicycle lantern.

In early 20th century; catalogs owned by Greg Cone, showed ignition dry cells built by Eveready in 1.5 Volt 2.5 X 6, 3 X 7 and 3.5 X 8 inch sizes. The ‘Columbia’ brand, gave current capabilities of their cells. The model 67 A at 2 1/2 X 6 inches delivered 25 Amps and the # 679 3 X 7 inch battery delivered 30 Amps. The # 679 sold for a whopping $0.45 each, which by today’s standards might be considered cheap, but adjusted for inflation, this price would make the battery worth over ten dollars in today’s currency. Columbia was a type of cylindrical dry cell battery built by Eveready for the telephone market. Phones such as the American Bell 2-box used them. (See

These early cells are primaries and not rechargeable, but people who use them for ignition starting found that the current delivered dropped off during use. However, by letting the cells rest for a period of time, they recovered power capacity and could continue to be used.

Another group in Illinois ( is flying  a full size reproduction of the  1903 Flyer, but it has a 20 hp lawnmower engine taking it out of the replica class. Even with the added horsepower they find that the Flyer won’t take off without significant wind, so the replica flight group  at Kill Devil Hill will be needing a return of the classic winds which  helped make  Orville’s first flight possible.

Before leaving the celebration of the Wright Brothers, and despite the reams of wonderful writings of their road to success, BD would like to highlight a few of the not well publicized parts of their success. The first relates to flight safety. Not only did the Brothers have to learn how to make an airplane, they had to learn to fly, too. Between the simple and sophisticated gliders, the Brothers logged thousands of flights to first understand what was needed before becoming confident in doing it. During their  experiments pioneers such as Lillenthal had died in their quest for flight control, and Chanute had hired ‘test pilots’ to fly in his experimental craft. Wilbur and Orville were consumed with the hands-on methods for creating an understanding of flight equilibrium, or to put it another way, to learn to design, build and control a flying machine. It would neither be exciting nor fully understandable to have other people experience the dynamics of the gliders or airplanes and then try to explain the experience to the Wrights. Based on past experience, learning through ‘trial and error’ had meant that error lead to death and the end of one’s scientific search for flight equilibrium. So, paramount to the successful achievement of equilibrium was the need to remain alive.

Wilbur discovered the solution of roll control by stumbling on the motion of an inner tube box, which when twisted, produced the proper angle for a wing to provide lift on one side and negative lift on the other. This resulted in their  ‘invention’ of wing warping. Whether by chance, divine revelation or scientific reasoning, the control surface for pitch was placed in front of the wing. Today, such surfaces are known in modern aircraft terms as a canard and were used quite successfully in the B-70 experimental supersonic bomber. This forward placement of the elevator was perhaps the best configuration for in-flight safety for the pioneering aviator, because in sizing the elevator, the surface had a stall speed below that for the main wing. When the gliders or Flyer pitched up too steeply for the airspeed, the elevator stalled first, dropping the nose of the  aircraft while the wings had not yet stalled. The craft would maintain roll stability as it glided to the earth in a much less than bone crunching crash, allowing the pilot to fly another day. This forgiving characteristic of the late gliders and the Flyer gave Wilbur and Orville the staying power to discover the intricacies of flight.

The third element of equilibrium was yaw which was not identified as a problem until the more sophisticated glider was built for the 1902 experiments. Wilbur commented, “In several... glides there were disturbances of the lateral equilibrium...13” This disturbance was often uncorrectable and led to the glider slipping  uncontrollably with one wing digging into the ground. It was grudgingly termed by the Wrights as “well digging.12” After  a well digging crash on September 23rd, which required 3 days of extensive repairs, Orville Later told his biographer that his excitement over the flights on October 2nd had caused him to drink too much coffee and lie awake that night. During the sleepless time, he reasoned that making the vertical tail moveable would correct the yaw equilibrium problem. In their conversations the next morning, Wilbur agreed with Orville, and added that interconnecting this moveable tail with wing warping would simplify the pilot’s job, eliminating another control handle. The modification worked and this gave the Brothers such confidence in their ability to control the craft that they moved on to the powered Flyer in 1903. But, before their 1902 season was to end, they made more than 375 more glides, leaving Orville to state; “ ...we now hold all the records!11

With the successful results of each step in their work, it was evident that the Brothers were both critically linked to the thinking of each other and committed to finding solutions with first hand experiments and measurements.While the airframe of the 1903 Flyer has undergone modifications and improvements to take us all over the world and into deep space; fundamentals highlighted and formulated by Wilbur and Orville, continue to be a part of each aircraft. For various aircraft power requirements, batteries, too, continue to find application and will continue to be a part of that invisible sub-structure which the flyers, the passengers and the observers fail to see as necessary for flight.

Many would point out that an early retrenchment from wing warping to moveable control surfaces (aileron, rudder, elevator, ect.) moved away from the spirit of the original Wright inventiveness. But even today, we find that in November of 2002, the first F/A-18A was flown with a ‘new concept’ of a flexible wing twist to change the distribution of aerodynamic pressure distribution.14

While it is exciting to know that many of the original flight principles still may be usable, we must realize that all aviation concepts will not gravitate back to the basics of the 1903 Wright Flyer. But, who would not give some measure of their life to be on the wing of the Flyer, first seeing the batteries being connected, the props spun and the engine roaring to life. Then it would be exhilirating tostare down the 60 foot guide known as the ‘Junction railroad’ as on that fateful December 17th 1903. The engine roars as the wind blows across the face as well as the rigging. First one would sense a gentle tug and then with the full force of the pusher propellers,  the Flyer accelerates, gently lifting into the air, free of the earth...Free as a!

1. Wind and Sand,Wascott & Degen, pp. 137-138
2. Early Flight, Frank Oppel, p. 10
3. First Flight, T.Crouch, p. 21.
4. Letter from Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute, May 13, 1900
5. Early flight, p.18
6. POWER BOAT NEWS, August 25, 1906, p.1-2.
7. Handbook of Batteries, Third Edition, para. 8.2
8.Telephone conversation between author and Greg Cone, November 2003
9. AOPA Pilot, August 2003
10. Audels New Electric Dictionary, Copyright 1933, 1941, 1948, p 278
11. Visions of a Flying Machine, p. 181
12. Visions of a Flying Machine, p. 174
13. Wind and Sand, p. 66
14. Active Areoelastic Wing Takes First Flight, AFRL Technology Horizons, March 2003. p. 15

This story is dedicated to the memory of Emily Georgi, the author’s mother who passed away as it was being written. In addition to being loved by her family, she was an active member of BD’s staff working with proofing, mailing and indexing over the years.