‘Steward, is this the boarding area for the flight across the Channel?’
‘Yes ma’am. Check your luggage at the gate and proceed up the boarding ramp.’
‘My daughter and I are so excited! It is safe to fly, isn’t it?’
‘Absolutely, ma’am. These airplanes incorporate all the latest safety features: high-pressure steam engines, double-walled boilers and the finest canvas propellers. After all, this is 1848.’
International air travel–in the 1840s? No, it’s not a scene from The Twilight Zone. What you’ve just glimpsed, through imaginary dialogue, are the prophetic dreams of Britons William Henson and John Stringfellow, forward-thinking inventors who designed a series of remarkably modern aircraft. They also founded the Aerial Transport Company–the world’s first airline–and began making plans to provide regular air service connecting cities around the world. And to prove their designs could really fly, these 19th-century inventors used the slide valves and steam engines of their day to construct some of the first power-driven flying machines in the world.
Though they themselves never actually got off the ground, Henson and Stringfellow are remembered today as pioneer strategists who helped convince a skeptical world that the air age was within grasp. Theirs is a story of mechanical genius, foresight and a quest to invent the future.
In the small English town of Chard, evidence of the burgeoning industrial revolution could be heard every day in the chattering machinery of the lace mills during the 1840s. Festooned with endless racks of brass bobbins and intricate levers, these mechanical marvels produced all kinds of goods, from curtains and ornamental lace for ladies to mosquito nets for hardy explorers. Automatic looms wove the threads, commanded by a system of computerlike punch cards. John Stringfellow, master lacemaker and skilled mechanic, knew how every swinging bar and meshing gear worked in these great machines. After all, he had designed them.
A man of his age, Stringfellow found himself drawn to the new advances in science. With his trousers hiked up, he waded through the shallow waters of the Chard canals, chipping fossils from their chalky banks to help him investigate the ancient past. In a makeshift laboratory behind his home, he produced flickering sparks using the new science of electricity. And he was fascinated by the steam engines that powered his mills and were transforming his world.
William Henson, also a lacemaker, knew Stringfellow through family connections. Henson was captivated by the new methods of travel then being introduced, including steamboats, railroads and the first road carriages. He also marveled at the hot-air balloons that floated majestically over the countryside.
Exactly how these two inquisitive men joined forces to design an airplane is not known. We do know that both frequented the Chard Institute, a lecture hall where the intellectually curious came to witness demonstrations on scientific topics. There is a story that Stringfellow was fond of tossing’sheets of cardboard’ (possibly model airfoils) across the empty gallery between lectures. Perhaps that’s how their partnership began.
By 1840, the men were working together on a study of bird flight. Using Stringfellow’s taxidermy models, they measured the wingspans of different species. Through spyglasses, they also observed birds flying across the countryside.
Soon they reached a momentous conclusion. While flapping wings was fine for the birds, they decided that a flying machine should have stationary wings, set at a slight angle to the wind and propelled through the air at great speed, just like Stringfellow’s cardboard sheets at Chard Hall. What they needed was a dependable way to experiment with this new idea. In the summer of 1841, Stringfellow boarded the Great Western Railway, bound for London, intent on doing some research along the way. Imagine their surprise when his fellow passengers spied wings of different shapes and sizes floating just outside their car windows. The inventor had somehow secured the conductor’s permission to perform tests during the journey (we might think of them as wind tunnel tests).
Both men agreed that steam was the means to propel their airfoil. The steam engines of their day were ponderous affairs, however, with great cast-iron cylinders weighing hundreds of pounds for each horsepower produced. But Stringfellow had already begun designing miniature engines, jewellike machines with tiny, soldered fittings. He fired their conical boilers with methylated spirits, burned in thimble-size reservoirs. One of his masterpieces was so light that he could even send it through the mail. Coupling those advances with the new Ericsson screw-type propeller, Henson and Stringfellow created a now-classic aeronautical design: the fixed-wing, propeller-driven airplane.
Certain they were on the right track, the team began drawing up plans for a full-size flying machine. Dubbed Ariel, the craft they envisioned would be colossal. A fixed wing spanning 150 feet would provide 4,500 square feet of sustaining surface. A streamlined cabin, fitted with glass windows, would accommodate passengers and crew. Specially designed high-pressure steam engines would operate twin six-bladed propellers to create the necessary thrust. A pilot-operated tail and rudder system would guide the great craft, while vertical stabilizers would steady the machine. A tricycle landing gear fitted with shock-absorbing wheels would facilitate takeoffs and landings.
With each pound of weight supported by two square feet of wing surface, Ariel would hopefully reach a cruising speed of about 50 mph. To achieve takeoff, the inventors planned to accelerate the machine down a launching ramp, with the wing fabric reefed back to reduce drag. Once perfected, the craft was to carry sufficient coal and supplies to complete a 500-mile flight.
Surprisingly modern features were incorporated in the design. The wing would gain its strength from hollow laminated spars that supported 26 gracefully curved ribs. Using the latest technology from bridge-building, the inventors would employ pylons, strategically placed across the span, to carry wire trussing out to the wings. The inventors also devised oval-section bracing wire to reduce drag during flight.
The wings of the airship would be delicately cambered and double-surfaced for maximum lift. Their long span and narrow chord would make them among the first high-aspect-ratio wing designs in history. Both wings and fuselage were to be covered with oiled silk, to provide a sealed skin for landing on water.
In more than a thousand experiments, using whirling arms and other apparatus, the inventors correctly identified the center of pressure and other key features of aircraft design. It is believed that they also secured the services of a mathematician who performed calculations using differential calculus to verify that each piece of the craft was as light and strong as possible.
Such complex innovations might seem impossible for a pair of Victorian inventors. But a set of moldering engineering drawings, purchased at auction in 1959, proves that the story is true. Meticulously prepared plan views and isometric drawings depict an exquisitely detailed, surprisingly modern-looking aircraft. And in the records of the British Patent Office there exists a complete patent application for ‘a locomotive apparatus for flying through the air,’ submitted by William S. Henson and John Stringfellow. Their patent was granted on September 29, 1842.
The public would soon learn about Henson and Stringfellow’s plans in a big way. Frederick Marriot, a newspaperman and publicity agent, joined the team. In a spirit that seems to foreshadow modern marketing tactics, the flamboyant Marriot unveiled a full-blown public relations campaign.
One can only imagine the public’s reaction when, flanked by their confident promoter, Henson and Stringfellow announced the formation of the Aerial Transport Company–in effect, the world’s first airline. Subscriptions were sought to raise funds to finance the construction of the fleet’s first airship. ‘An invention has recently been discovered,’ announced a glowing prospectus, ‘which if ultimately successful, will be without parallel even in our present age.’ Readers were informed, ‘In furtherance of this project, it is proposed to raise an immediate sum of 2,000 pounds, in 20-pound sums of 100 pounds. Applications can be made to D.E. Columbine, Esquire, Regent Street.’ It’s unclear just how much was raised, but a sheaf of papers discovered among the effects of a businessman who died in 1854, included some 45 pages of reports ‘prepared for the financial backers to Ariel Project.’
To raise additional funds for the project, Marriot hit on the enterprising idea of selling promotional lithographs showing Ariel in flight. Within months, images of a great flying machine soaring over the capitals of the world were decorating homes and businesses all over Europe and America.
On March 24, 1842, J.A. Roebuck, a member of Parliament for Bath, moved in the House of Commons for ‘the incorporation of the Aerial Transport Company, to convey passengers, goods, and mail through the air.’ Within a week, the widely read Mechanics Magazine published the full specification from the patent.
The English press was quick to offer its views. Sharp-tongued critics reminded their readers that no flight attempts had succeded thus far. More scientifically minded writers speculated about the Aerial Steam Carriage’s stability in stormy weather. Technical journals agreed or took issue with the inventors’ calculations for necessary power and their provisions for control. Debated by gentlemen in their clubs as well as workingmen in the pubs, air travel had become a topic of the day.
According to Marriot, the Aerial Steam Carriage would not only achieve the dream of human flight but also commence regular service from London to outlying cities. Special ‘aerial stations’ would be erected at each destination, equipped with smooth landing fields. Station houses, patterned after railway depots, would serve the passengers, while coaling stations, machine shops and other mechanical facilities would maintain the aircraft. Legions of workers, from boilermakers to stokers to porters, would service the aircraft and its passengers.
In times of war, Marriot argued, it might also be used in an air force. Fleets of Aerial Steam Carriages, strengthened to carry the added weight of munitions and armor, could assist the British empire in moving troops around the globe.
The firm’s grandiose plan unleashed a whirlwind of controversy and speculation. While some admired its foresight and boldness, others dismissed the idea as hucksterism. Some journalists offered mocking praise, pointing out that shipwrights and wagon makers would go bankrupt once everyone began traveling by air. Satirical cartoonists had a field day, depicting Ariel on improbable flights to places like China, with the passengers becoming embroiled in ludicrous adventures.
Sir George Cayley, a noted expert on balloons and winged flight, was also critical of the project. Cayley had experimented with hand-launched models as early as 1809, and had also achieved some brief flights using kitelike gliders. Interviewed by a variety of journals, Sir George expressed his fear that Ariel’s long, narrow wings might collapse during flight.
But the inventors would not be dissuaded. They drew up a business agreement to build their great machine, then set about creating a 20-hp engine for a smaller, one-man aircraft. They also began construction of a series of powered models that captured all the important features of their full-scale designs. Different arrangements, from rectangular wings to delta wing designs, were tested for strength and lifting power.
Several models were finally prepared for flight. The largest machine featured wings spanning 20 feet from tip to tip. A handmade steam engine, weighing just 6 pounds–including boiler, water and igniting spirits–was built into its fuselage. Driving twin propellers at about 300 rpm, this would hopefully provide adequate thrust to propel the 30-pound craft into the air.
Testing commenced in the pre-dawn darkness, in hopes of achieving flight during the stillness of early morning. Still, the slightest breeze put the broad-winged models out of control. Wings twisted, fabric sagged, joints snapped. Engines burned themselves to cinders, wasting a week’s work in a single flight attempt. During one trial, the aircraft shook so violently on starting to build up steam pressure that its entire framework was torn to pieces.
Despite their best efforts over several months, Henson and Stringfellow could not get enough power from their engines. While the largest model made some powered glides down a ramp, it could not achieve sustained flight.
One newspaper published an account under the mocking headline ‘Didn’t Fly an Inch.’ The Morning Herald jeered, ‘The experiments performed during the last two months at the Aleidale Gallery appear to be conclusive against the remotest possibility of ever performing a flight.’ Onlookers hounded the experimenters, while leading industrialists condemned the venture as an overblown publicity stunt. After exhausting every means to finance the experiments, Henson decided to leave the project and seek his fortune in America.
Stringfellow soldiered on alone. At one point, he even talked of trying his luck in the California Gold Rush of 1849 in an effort to find more money for his experiments, but his family managed to dissuade him from that questionable plan. By 1847 Stringfellow had designed a new model aircraft with a 12-foot wingspan. Instead of having rectangular wings like his earlier models, this craft incorporated gracefully curved surfaces, which he patterned after the wings of a swallow. Nestled beneath the 17 square feet of wing surface, an on-board steam engine drove bevel gears to spin the model’s two 16-inch propellers. An adjustable triangular tail would trim the machine for flight. This time the craft would be flown indoors, in a long, narrow room. Propelled by its airscrews, the model would steam forward along a horizontal wire until a trip switch liberated it into flight.
And fly it did. ‘Upon putting the engine in motion,’ a witness reported, ‘the machine reached the end of the wire, then gradually rose into the air until it reached the far end of the room.’ Success at last!
Within a few months, a large tent had been erected at the Cremorne Gardens to exhibit the craft. There, according to local advertisements, visitors could ‘witness flights of the Aerial Steam Carriage, taking place at three and six o’clock.’ According to witnesses, some flights covered more than 120 feet. Stringfellow’s little plane even managed to gain just a bit of altitude during its brief journey through the air.
In following years, it is believed that Stringfellow constructed as many as six more experimental craft. One large model, sporting scalloped, batlike wings, survived long enough to be captured in an eerie photo of the inventor’s workshop. Construction details of this machine reveal a steam engine buried in the fuselage. Twin, apparently contrarotating propellers were located amidships, slotted into the craft’s deeply chorded wings. ‘This machine,’ Stringfellow wrote to an associate in 1851, ‘I consider to be my most perfect craft.’
Other letters penned by the inventor during this period seem like messages plucked from the future. One correspondence mentions ‘three flying machines which I have ready for trial,’ along with a description of how the models would take off after about 25 feet of run. All these craft apparently ran along a taut wire until being released into free flight. For a time, Stringfellow also planned to construct a hall, several hundred feet long, where aerial experiments could be staged as a regular attraction.
Years would pass before other British inventors became seriously interested in aeronautics. Finally, in 1868, the newly formed Royal Aeronautical Society invited Stringfellow to participate in its first aeronautical show at the great Crystal Palace, near London. A marvel of its age, this towering structure was entirely prefabricated from cast-iron frames, into which thousands of panes of specially prepared glass had been glazed and sealed. Some claim that architect John Paxton created the building by studying the veins of a lily pad. It was a cavernous hall, 2,000 feet long and unimpeded by obstructing columns–the perfect place to test a flying machine.
The now 69-year-old Stringfellow surprised Society members by unveiling a completely new flying machine for the exhibit. It was a radical design, incorporating three rectangular wings separated by slender struts and trussed by diagonal wires. Together, the wings of the new machine offered about 28 square feet of sustaining surface. The weight, including engine, boiler and fuel, came to about 12 pounds. ‘This model,’ exhibitors would record in the event proceedings, ‘is remarkable for the elegance and neatness of its construction.’
Beneath the Great Hall’s vast arched domes of glass and iron framing, spectators ranging from ordinary Londoners to the Prince and Princess of Wales wandered through a remarkable array of aerial apparatus. These included kites, miniature engines and spring-driven ornithopters. Model balloons hung in the air. Outside on the grounds, acrobat Charles Spencer thrilled the crowd with aerial leaps of more than 100 feet, accomplished by running and jumping with a crude glider. Stringfellow’s triplane would ride along a wire, stretched between the immense columns of the main hall. With propellers spinning and smoke billowing from its tiny stack, the little triplane crossed the span again and again. Some visitors noticed that by the middle of the run, the machine was lifting the wire, as if it were straining to fly on its own.
As it happened, the prospect of launching a smoking, alcohol-fired model airplane over the heads of hundreds of spectators (and a future king) was deemed too risky. But late one night after all the spectators had left the hall, Stringfellow did make a free flight. Stoked to full power, the model whizzed off the wire, descended majestically and landed in a canvas tarp held open by several extremely impressed members of the Aero Society.
In the end, Stringfellow was awarded the exhibition’s $500 prize–not for his secret flight test, but for exhibiting ‘the most efficient steam engine in proportion to its weight.’ Driven by 3 1/2 pints of pressurized water, Stringfellow’s 16-pound model engine ran for about 10 minutes, developing 1 horsepower.
Stringfellow remained convinced that human flight might still be within his grasp. He returned to his workshop with plans for a small aircraft, which he hoped might carry a single pilot. Using the Crystal Palace prize money, he erected a new building 70 feet long in which to fly models and to serve as a hangar for a full-size machine. According to some reports, parts of his man-carrying aircraft were actually built and a test plan was prepared. But age and circumstances conspired against John Stringfellow, a man who had been born too early to realize his dreams. He died in 1883, more than 40 years after beginning his quest, but still many years short of the day when air travel would become a reality.
William Henson did not live to see manned flight either. He continued to tinker throughout his life, designing a variety of contrivances from safety razors and mining pumps to breechloading cannons for the American Civil War. But his inventions rarely brought him any financial reward, and he would finish out his days as a draftsman and sometime engineer. When Henson died at Newark, N.J., in 1888, no one apparently recalled that he had been an aviation pioneer.
Perhaps the detractors had been right all along. Modern calculations show that all the Henson/Stringfellow designs were underpowered, structurally fragile and only marginally stable. Even the best flights with their models were very short by modern standards, and historians have been divided on whether they should qualify as fully self-propelled flights. Add to this the fact the two Britons had no ailerons, no gasoline engines and no reliable flight data, and perhaps their dream of human flight was simply impossible in Victorian times.
But in the end, none of that mattered. While it never actually left the ground, the Aerial Steam Carriage would become a kind of time capsule, flying serenely in the framed illustrations and crocheted pillows of Victorian parlors until technology could catch up with the dream. Stringfellow’s demonstration models would eventually reach the collections of universities, inspiring future generations to conduct their own experiments.
John Stringfellow would make one more contribution. Years after his death, his son received letters from an experimenter seeking a lightweight steam engine. Finding none more powerful than Stringfellow’s Crystal Palace engine of 1868, the solicitor wished to purchase the motor for his own flying experiments. The writer was Samuel Pierpont Langley, regent of the Smithsonian Institution, whose aeronautical work would inspire the Wright brothers and other early aviators.
This article was written by Nick D’Alto and originally published in the January 2004 issue of Aviation History Magazine.
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