Who invented the wind tunnel?

Although the Wrights' were the first to use a wind tunnel as part of the aircraft design process, they did not invent it, or the notion of testing surfaces in a laboratory environment.

whirling armRobins' Whirling Arm

Benjamin Robins (1707-1751) - Robins was the first scientist to measure drag with an instrument, spinning shapes of different surfaces on a 'whirling arm' apparatus. This was the first known use of the whirling arm, which was the predecessor of the wind tunnel. Whirling arms were used extensively in the 19th century by experimenters including the Wrights' main predecessors and competitors, Sir George Cayley, Otto Lilienthal, Hiram Maxim, and Samuel Pierpont Langley.

Frank Wenham
Frank Wenham

Frank H. Wenham (1824-1908) - Disappointed with his work with whirling arms, Wenham designed and built the first wind tunnel in 1871. He described it as "a trunk 12 feet long and 18 inches square, to direct the current horizontally, and in parallel course." Wenham tested a variety of surfaces in his tunnel, measuring lift-to-drag ratios and testing the effect of different aspect ratios.

zahm tunnelZahm tunnel

Albert Zahm - In 1901, Albert Zahm of Catholic University, Washington, DC, built a wind tunnel financed by a wealthy sponsor, Hugo Mattullah. It operated from 1901-1908, and despite successful and sophisticated tests, the tunnel was eventually shut down. Zahm became an adversary of the Wrights in their legal battles.