Japan's Aircraft Pioneer: Ninomiya Chuhachi
An obscure shrine-museum dedicated to flight
A traditional toy and a genius for observation put Japan's airplane inventor ahead of the Wrights in understanding the principles of flight.
On a November day in 1889 a Japanese army unit on field maneuvers in Shikoku took a lunch break in a broad valley. As the troops moved out, crows came winging in to pick up grains of rice that dropped from the lunch rations.
Ninomiya Chuhachi, a 23-year-old apprentice sick berth steward, stayed to watch. In his earlier years he designed and built kites, and thoughts of a flying machine had been on his mind for some time. As he watched the crows, he reasoned that the secret to human flight was somewhere in the wings of birds when they were not flapping. He wanted to study their outstretched wings, and to do this Ninomiya threw out rice grains to bring the crows close to him. He watched the birds as they glided to the ground at the last part of their flight.
Then on takeoff, he observed how they gained a degree of elevation with wing power, but they soon stopped flapping their wings, spread them, went into a horizontal glide and then rode the air currents up to the mountain ridge. Wing-flapping, he reasoned, attained fight by expending energy, but If motionless wings could maintain a crow in flight, a machine built on a similar idea with some form of motive power should be able to sustain a man aloft.
As Ninomiya kept throwing out grains of rice, he observed that the crows controlled their horizontal flight by adjusting their tails, and that the leading edges of the wings angled upwards. He remembered how he and his childhood friends used to skip stones on the water, how a flat stone under-armed and angled upwards skipped over the surface and moved ahead. Now he saw the crows using a similar principle with their wings to move forward in the air. It was an early glimpse of what aircraft engineers of later years came to call 'angle of attack'.
The army unit moved on. Ninomiya lagged behind - and moved closer to the principle of flight. He later produced several flying models that could have - should have - been prototypes for the first manned aircraft. If it had happened, he would have been chronologically ahead of the Wright brothers in sustained, manned flight; he was unquestionably ahead from a design point of view.
Chuhachi was born into a merchant's family on the island of Shikoku in 1866. When he was still a child, he started designing and making kites, and eventually they became such a hit with the neighborhood that they became profitable.
Some of his kites took on aspects of flying machines. One creation was a "parent-and-child" kite for advertising purposes. The main, or "parent," kite had a belly compartment which could be filled with pamphlets. Once aloft, the winged child kite is placed on the kite string at the ground. The wind catches the wings, the child rides up the string to the parent and strikes a tripping device that releases the pamphlets in a rain of messages. The contact also makes the wings on the child kite fold back - similar to carrier-based military planes - and the child slides down the string and returns to earth.
Chuhachi started working in a photo shop, at that time a trade at the forefront of technology, then at about 14 years of age he joined his elder brother working for a medicine dealer. Japan's conscription system brought Ninomiya into the army, where he used his background in medicine to work towards becoming a sick berth steward.
Difference in propeller concepts: Ninomiya vs. the Wrights
The achievement of the Wrights cannot be underestimated, (although the press of the day did just that: news reporters took a 'so-what?' attitude and did not move very fast when word came that a man had taken a flying machine aloft). But the Wrights and Ninomiya had opposite ideas on rotational speed and size of propellers, and time proved Ninomiya had the physics correct. The Wrights used two large, slow-turning propellers, apparently borrowing ideas from their profession of bicycle mechanics for their creation, and geared down the engine shaft speed with a bicycle-type chain drive to each propeller. Photos of the plane clearly show a larger sprocket on each of the two propellers than on the engine, thus a speed reduction effect.
Ninomiya studied the mechanical rotary propulsion mechanisms on the foreign steamships that came into the harbor in his home island of Shikoku. In 1883, at 16 years of age, Chuhachi rowed out to an anchored ship for his first close-up look at the device that moved the ships forward, and sketched every ship's screw he could locate, then made miniature models of them. From there, he started redesigning them to apply the principle to flying machines.
Even a greater and earlier influence was a popular toy called a take-tombo, or 'bamboo dragonfly.' This is simply a propeller on a slender dowel, or shaft, which is placed between the palms and given a spin with a quick slide of the hands. This sends the toy aloft. The take-tombo can even be found in shops in this day of video games... with some searching; ask in stores selling folkcraft-type souvenirs. A taketombo makes a small, cheap, almost weightless gift. But back when children made their toys, rather than buying them, even the poorest child could find some bamboo scraps and get or borrow some kind of carving knife. Each child naturally wanted to make a take-tombo that went higher and flew longer than the others, and children got a feel for how to make them that way: they learned the relationships between propeller pitch, size and speed to good flight characteristics. A Wright-type approach would not make a successful take-tombo, and it didn't take many years for fledgling aircraft designers to realize what every Japanese child knew from way back: that propulsion efficiency came from shorter, faster turning blades. Ninomiya applied these lessons to his propulsion design for a model aircraft.
Ninomiya was working on a taxiing system for his model for takeoffs and landings. In 1888, at 22 years of age, he saw a bicycle for the first time, and one ride convinced him that two wheels would not work. His sketches for the principle of a tricycle landing gear included his drawing of a real child's tricycle.
In 1891 Ninomiya started experiments with a "poor man's wind tunnel," successive leaps from a bridge into a river while holding an umbrella to study the behavior of air in relationship to different umbrella angles. On April 29 of that year, his model plane was ready for the test flight. It was a single-wing plane with a wingspan of about 60 centimeters.
He cut strips of rubber from stethoscopes for rubber bands and anchored them in the nose with an idea taken from yarn twisters for fishing nets. The rubber bands angled up and ran back to a four-blade propeller located above the fuselage about mid-point between nose and tail. He called his model Karasu,"Crow," after his instructors in flight, and he even painted a crow's face on the front. On the first flight, his model flew thirty meters (33 yards) from a taxiing takeoff, then landed safely on its tricycle landing gear.
Ninomiya made designs for man-powered flying machines, but soon realized that flight must look to mechanical power. In addition to birds, Ninomiya looked at every flying creature he could find - bugs, insects, even flying fish. He made careful measurements, recorded body weights, and made sketches. After his Karasu flight, he decided on a tamamushi (Chrysochroa elegans) as a model for a powered aircraft. This two-winged flying creature moves through the air with its longer upper wings outstretched and uses its shorter lower wings for propulsion. At the time, American motorcycles were being imported, and Ninomiya designed his Tamamushi for a 12 horsepower motorcycle engine. Aeronautical engineer Noguchi Tsuneo, presently with the Yamanashi College of Aviation, commented, "By present knowledge we know that the wing area Ninomiya planned was just right for 12 horsepower. His calculations were correct."
Ninomiya's plans and scale model for his Tamamushi flying machine were completed in 1893, the same year that Otto Lilienthal started his research into gliders that would be a text for the Wrights. With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, his unit was shipped to China, but he took his model and plans with him and begged his superior officer to let him continue developing a full-scale machine for use in field communications. The officer's answer: "You're crazy. If America and Europe don't have such a machine, how can we Japanese build one?"
After Ninomiya was demobilized, he went to Osaka, a center for the pharmaceutical industry, and started working his way up the corporate ladder by developing new medicines. He had only one purpose for gaining finances: his flying machine.
Ninomiya then bought an old rice-polishing plant between Osaka and Kyoto for his workshop and testing ground. He was moving ahead with his machine when news of the Wright brothers arrived. Ninomiya became depressed and abandoned the project. It was discovered much later; then at an air show in Vancouver, Canada, in 1991, a plane built on his plans flew for the spectators. If Ninomiya's superior officer had had just a touch of the draftee's craziness, aeronautical history would have been different - and the Wrights would have been second.
A shrine dedicated to flight was established near Ninomiya's former workshop. It contains a small memorial museum - a nice size living room - that displays the inventor's models and sketches, including his first Karasu. It is located near Yawata station on the Keihan Railway Line between Kyoto and Osaka, a local stop. Exit the station, turn left (towards Kyoto) and over a tiny bridge, then right at the next corner and a few paces on it will be on your right. The modern-design shrine is called Hiko jinja and looks a bit like the entrance to an apartment building, except for a jet engine in a glass case enshrined at the entrance. The memorial museum in the shrine is open from 9am to 4pm, closed Wednesdays. Admission 300 yen. A Japanese reading/speaking companion would be helpful, since there are no English explanations.
When you leave Yawata station, if you look right, you'll see a cable car that goes up to a more spacious shrine. Yoshiie, famed warrior of the Genji clan born in the eleventh century, had his coming-of-age ceremony here. And if you're puzzled by that monument to Thomas Edison, it was because he experimented with the bamboo in this region when he was looking for filament material for his electric light and the results were used for a decade.
Hal Gold is the author of numerous articles and several books on Japanalia, including "Unit 731: Testimony" (Tuttle Publishing). He has recently published a World War II historical fiction titled "Neutral War" (Lyons Press).