First U.S. wind tunnel
In 1882, an ambitious Notre Dame student named Albert Zahm built what might have been the first wind tunnel in America so that he could study the lift and drag of various wing shapes.
Zahm built the hand-driven contraption by removing the vibrating screens from a farmer’s winnowing blower. Two decades before the Wright brothers’ famous flight in 1903, Zahm was among the first to conclude that slender, concave surfaces shaped like a bird’s wing would make the best wings and propellers.
A true pioneer in American aeronautical engineering, Zahm would later go on to launch glider experiments from the roof of Old Science Hall (now LaFortune Student Center) as a young professor, write influential aeronautics papers on stability and flow control, and build the country’s first large wind tunnel. He proposed dropping a glider from a hot-air balloon but never received the funding.
Zahm suspended on a 50-foot rope a flying machine operated by foot power, hanging from the ceiling of the museum in the Science Hall. His shop assistant made “flights” in a circle around the museum to test various propellers, sometimes using his feet to keep from colliding into the walls on his rapid bank maneuvers.
When the museum curator, Brother Benedict, found footprints high on the walls, he figured only the devil could walk up a wall. So he sprinkled the place liberally with holy water.