John Stringfellow And The World's First Powered Flight

Mar 5, 2024 0 comments

In 1842, British engineers William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow received a patent for a flying machine. Unlike previous attempts made with gliders and hot-air balloons, Henson’s and Stringfellow’s invention was unique because it was the first attempt to move towards powered flight. Just six years later, the world’s first steam powered airplane took flight. Remarkably, this happened more than half a century before the historic flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.

A lithograph by Thomas Picken imagines “Ariel” flying over the Nile, with the pyramids in the background.

Humans have been enamored with flight since antiquity. One of the earliest tales of flight is the Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus, the father-son duo, who were imprisoned in a tall tower by King Minos. Daedalus and Icarus escaped the tower by using wings constructed from feathers attached to their arms with beeswax. Daedalus warned his son Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, lest the heat from the sun melted the wax in his wings. But Icarus ignored Daedalus’s warning and plunged to his death.

Echoing this ancient tale, the 9th century Islamic engineer Abbas ibn Firnas is reported to have fashioned wings using vulture feathers and achieved a brief flight before descending with injuries. A similar account from the 11th century states that the Benedictine monk Eilmer of Malmesbury attached wings to his hands and feet and flew a short distance before a rough landing left him injured. As late as the 19th century, a German tailor named Albrecht Berblinger constructed wings which he strapped on to his arms and jumped into the Danube, hoping to make it across, only to plop down into the water.

The first major breakthrough in aviation was made by a Yorkshire Baronet Sir George Cayley, who first set forth the concept of the modern airplane as a fixed-wing flying machine as opposed to the comical flapping winged machines that many of his predecessors had imagined. It was George Cayley who proposed separate systems for lift, propulsion, and control, and it was he who first identified the four-vector forces that influence an aircraft: thrust, lift, drag, and weight. He also discovered the importance of cambered wings, the characteristic curved shape that is fundamental to flight.

John Stringfellow

Drawing inspiration from Cayley's work, John Stringfellow and his lace-making engineer William Samuel Henson designed a large passenger-carrying steam-powered monoplane. Named “Aerial” this grand aircraft was envisioned with a remarkable wingspan of 150 feet and a weight of 3,000 pounds. Its propulsion was to be driven by a lightweight steam engine, crafted by Henson, capable of generating 50 horsepower. Henson and his collaborator John Stringfellow even dreamed of the Aerial Transit Company with a fleet of such airplanes, each capable of carrying 10 to 12 passengers across the Atlantic Ocean to exotic locations like Egypt and China.

In 1848, Henson and Stringfellow constructed a scaled-down version of their monoplane, with a wingspan of ten feet and two contra-rotating six-bladed propellers mounted in the rear in a push-type system. To prevent wind from destabilizing its flight, the engineers conducted their experiments within the confines of a disused lace factory in Chard. The testing space, measuring approximately 20 meters in length and 3.7 meters in height, provided a controlled environment for their endeavors. A guide wire was attached to prevent the airplane from veering off its course. This inclined wire occupied less than half the length of the room and left space at the end for the machine to clear the floor. When the steam engine was fired up, the machine started down the wire and gradually rose until it reached the farther end of the room, where it struck a sheet of canvas placed there to halt its progress. This was the first flight in history for a propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft.

The Aerial Steam Carriage as imagined by the lithographer W. L Walton.

Despite the initial success, subsequent endeavors were unfruitful. Later models built to larger dimensions failed to sustain flight, dashing hopes of realizing the grand vision of the Aerial Transit Company's passenger-carrying monoplane. Henson got disheartened and quit leading to the dissolution of the company in 1848. But Stringfellow persisted in his pursuit of powered flight alongside his son, constructing another 10-foot model propelled by a compact steam engine of his own design. It weighed just 9 pounds. Multiple witnesses attested to its gradual ascent upon launch during several instances in 1848. Stringfellow himself harbored confidence in these demonstrations, viewing them as proof of the viability of powered flight.

Stringfellow built many more model airplanes and engines, before exhibiting a model steam-powered triplane and a model steam engine in the aeronautical exhibition at Crystal Palace in June 1868. He garnered acclaim from the Royal Aeronautical Society, which awarded his engine a prize of £100 for its outstanding power-to-weight ratio among the fifteen engines showcased.

A model of “Ariel” in Chard, Somerset. Photo credit: mambo13/Flickr

Although John Stringfellow's contributions have largely faded from the annals of history, a bronze model of his invention stands proudly in Chard's Fore Street in Somerset, with additional models preserved in the collection of the Science Museum in London. Notably, Chard's museum hosts a distinctive exhibition showcasing the evolution of flight predating the era of internal combustion engines and the iconic manned, powered flight pioneered by the Wright Brothers.

Aside from aeronautics, Stringfellow persevered in many other fields, such as photography, becoming proficient enough to advertise himself as a professional portrait photographer at his studio near the family home in Chard High Street. The studios in Chard and in Crewkerne are where some of his flying vehicle machines were photographed. Stringfellow also invented and patented compact electric batteries, which were used in early medical treatment.


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