Search This Blog & Get A Rife

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How Japanese Children Were Smarter Than The Wright Brothers

A couple of weeks ago (August 25, 2011) I hopefully taught you all something about Japan's aviation pioneer Ninomiya Chuhachi (surname first). You can read that story HERE

Despite the length of the article, I only really delved into his attempts at flight.

At this time, I want to discuss how all Japanese children were was smarter than the Wright Brothers who were the first to create a heavier-than-air (airplane or aeroplane - I actually like this old style spelling!) craft. And, the Wright Brother's were pretty damn smart!

It all comes down to being screwed. Or rather a screw, as in propellers - an underrated component in the race to build a functional air craft!

The Wright Brothers and Ninomiya had different ideas - polar opposites, if you will, on the size and rotational speed of propellers - and believe it or not, a self-taught Japanese man got the physics right.

Orville and Wilbur Wright preferred to utilize two slow-spinning propellers, which they derived from their bicycle building profession. Essentially, they geared down the engine shaft speed with a bicycle chain to drive each propeller. Photos of the Wright Flyer show a larger heavy sprocket on each propeller which caused a reduction in spin and thus in sped.

Our man Ninomiya - well, through independent study, he arrived at a different conclusion... though both he and the Wright Brothers did not know of the other's findings.

Always the inquisitive lad, Ninomiya checked out the foreign ships that had only recently begun to legally enter Japanese ports again after a 300 year ban. In 1883, when he was 16, Ninomiya would row out to anchored ships off the island of Shikoku where he lived. It was there that he got his first look at the propellers that helped move the ships - and he drew diagrams of every single one he could spot... and then he made miniature models of each.

It was these models which helped Ninomiya learn about the principles of flight, as he continually redesigned these models to get what he considered a perfect propeller.

The Japanese have a small wooden toy called a taketombo (bamboo dragonfly) that is essentially a propeller on a stick that one places between the palms and then by sliding the hands quickly, flight of the taketombo is achieved.

Taketombo - bamboo propeller toy
It's pretty cool, and I had one when I was living in Japan - a gift from a student at Ichinosawa Primary School in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan. It was stepped on by my dog one day, and it broke, which is too bad because I think my son and I could have a few laughs with it now. I'll have to find one somewhere!

While it was in inexpensive gift (maybe) for the child who gave it to me, back when Ninomiya was young, he had to make his own taketombo by carving his own bamboo with a borrowed knife. The goal, of course, was to make the best flying taketombo ever - to fly longer and higher than everyone else!

By learning what propeller shape to weigh ration, along with propeller speed (slide of the hand), Japanese children everywhere learned the aeronautical relationship between propeller pitch, propeller size and propeller speed and how subtle differences can make the difference in a good flight or a great one. Here's a slow-motion video of one in flight HERE.

That is what the Wright Brothers did not know. In fact, most pioneer aviation designers failed to recognize the aeronautical skills tiny Japanese kids learned years previous - that you get better propulsion - a more efficient propeller - from shorter, faster turning blades.

And this is what Ninomiya applied to his airplane models.

Some other achievements of Ninomiya includes his taxi system for aircraft. When he was 22 years of age back in 1888 - some 20 years before the Wright Brothers achieved flight, Ninomiya saw his first bicycle in Japan. After a single ride (and how wobbly it was) he realized a pair of bike tires on a plane would not work, and that for great stability, two on the wings and one on the nose would work. Check out an airplane today. Essentially wheels on the wing and one on the nose.

Ninomiya also tested wind resistance by creating a wind tunnel back in 1891. Okay, not really. What he did was continually jump off a bridge into a river while holding an umbrella. By holding the open umbrella at different angles, he studied how air was captured and helped keep him aloft (if even for a brief moment).

On April 29, 1891, Ninomiya finished his first model airplane that he called Karasu (the Crow), as these birds had first taught him the best way to fly - with rigid wings. You really should have read my earlier article. Regardless, he painted a crow's head on the front of his model.

So: The Karasu MODEL was a single-wing plane (monoplane) with a dihedral wing (upward wing angle - an angle determined from his umbrella bridge jumping) and a 45 centimeter wingspan. It used a rubber band motor that powered a four-blade pusher propeller (the propeller sits behind the engine) was built of bamboo.

That first flight achieved a distance of 10 meters, and 36 meters the next day... both times landing unharmed on the model's tricycle wheel system.

For a man-made flight, Ninomiya was no dummy. He knew a rubberband wasn't going to cut it. A fuel powered engine would be needed.

For his new Tamamushi (Jewel Beetle) model, he designed it to fit a 12-horsepower motorcycle engine. And... just so you know, current aeronautical engineers say that the plane's design was just perfect for that particular horsepower. Unfortunately, motorcycle engines were few and far between in Japan... so he needed to purchase one from elsewhere... and while saving up money for it, he discovered that the Wright Brothers had beaten him to the punch.

Still, perhaps he could have enjoyed some smug satisfaction in knowing that he - and the rest of Japan's children - were smarter than the Wright Brothers on the construction of a better propeller - and all thanks to a simple toy called a taketombo.

Files compiled by Andrew Joseph


  1. Wow, that's good to know. I hope more people see this.

  2. V interesting. I bet all Japanese know about the Wright Brothers, and maybe a handful know about Ninomiya.