Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:
William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation
by Chris Oakley
In June of 1844, during her seventh year as monarch of the British Empire, Queen Victoria invited inventor William Samuel Henson to meet with her that July to discuss his work in developing a practical flying machine. The previous year Henson had built a scale model of his proposed "aerial steam carriage" and sent it up only to see it fall back to earth with a thud; undaunted by this failure, Henson had continued to refine his invention and the Queen-- who shared with her husband Prince Albert a keen interest in science and industry --had been intrigued by Hensonís vision of powered flight.
Her only criticism of Hensonís design was his choice of propulsion method. As she would later point out to him herself, steam engines were too heavy to permit even the briefest of sustained flights; a new kind of smaller and lighter engine would have to be devised and Hensonís "aerial carriage" redesigned around it if his dream of flight were to become reality.
Accordingly, when he returned to his Somerset home Henson quickly set to work drafting blueprints for the prototype of a petrol-powered motor suitable for his flying machine. Two of his business partners, John Stringfellow and D.E. Colombine, collaborated with him on the design process, and within two years the fruits of their labor would open the doors to a new era in transportation and commerce...
There was more than just a high regard for science motivating Queen Victoriaís decision to support Henson and his colleagues-- national pride was involved as well. If an Englishman were to be the one to create a successful flying machine, Britainís standing as the worldís leading technological and industrial power of the day would be greatly enhanced.
She also saw Hensonís invention as a means of opening new trade routes with the rest of the world and expanding existing ones. Although the Victorian era has acquired an unfortunate reputation for stodginess and conformist thinking, it actually marked the beginning of a boom in scientific innovation in Britain and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, and Henson and his partners had the great good fortune to get in on the ground floor of that boom.
In October of 1844 inventor William Barnet, who six years earlier had been awarded a patent for a cylinder-based engine system, joined Hensonís aviation research team and immediately went to work with him on developing an internal combustion engine suitable for propelling Hensonís flying machine. Their first prototypes were low-power affairs small enough to fit on a tabletop-- which was highly fortunate, given that these prototypes had a nasty habit of either catching fire or shaking themselves to pieces.
One experimental engine was a failure for the opposite reason-- it did nothing at all. Despite the Henson teamís best efforts to coax some life out of it, it just sat there inert, refusing to give off even the faintest glimmer of energy. In frustration, Henson finally picked up a hammer and smashed it to bits, startling a vicar who had the misfortune to be walking past Hensonís workshop at the time.
But however unfortunate these failures might have been in the short term, in the long run they taught Henson and his team a great deal about what needed to be done to produce a working internal combustion engine, and in September of 1848, nearly four years after William Barnet joined Hensonís research group, the team finally succeeded in producing a gasoline-powered motor capable of driving a small handcart across a distance of five feet. From that accomplishment, Henson and his associates derived the encouragement needed to attempt building a larger and more powerful engine.
Over the next two years, Henson and his associates continued to refine their gasoline motor, testing their refinements out in increasingly larger vehicle platforms. Concurrent with these refinements was a series of experiments to find the proper airframe for the new version of Hensonís proposed "aerial carriage"; as Benjamin Franklin had done nearly a century earlier with his research into electricity, Henson started his quest for the ideal airframe by flying kites. From there, the inventor moved on to miniature gliders, trying literally hundreds of different fuselage and wing designs in his bid to find a structure that could be mated to his internal combustion engine.
The glider tests, as it turned out, were the easy part of the program. Finding a way to mate Hensonís airframe designs with his combustion engine proved a much greater challenge; most of his first experiments in this regard were failures-- and conspicuous failures at that. At least one such experiment literally almost blew up in Hensonís face when a spark from the engine started a fire that would have caused the inventorís fuel stocks to explode but for the intervention of a quick-thinking vicar who doused the flames with a bucket of water from a nearby farm.
Another of these failures scared the living daylights out of one of Hensonís neighbors when a prototype powered flying machine descended on the unfortunate man after its engine cut out directly above his pasture; as the man himself later recalled, "It was as though a great bird of prey was attacking me...the thing gave off the most hideous fumes as it plunged down from the sky."1 Though he was able to get out of its way in time to avoid serious physical injury, his nerves were naturally quite badly shaken, and in the immediate aftermath of the crash Henson found himself a very unpopular figure in his hometown. There were demands that he either take his experiments elsewhere or shut them down altogether; there was even a brief campaign to force Henson to go into exile overseas. Had that campaign succeeded in its goal, the course of aviation history-- and British history--might have been changed forever....
But Henson would not capitulate to his foes. Enlisting the aid of his patrons in the royal family, he built a second laboratory further out in the countryside where he and his team could continue their research with less risk of disturbing the neighbors; he also published a series of broadsides declaring in no uncertain terms that he would not let anyone force him to abandon his native England. Having fired these shots across the bow of those who would stand in the way of his dream, the inventor then went back to work on his effort to find a way of mating a workable airframe design to his internal combustion engine.
While it would take at least half a century to elapse before all- metal aircraft were even theoretically possible, Henson correctly surmised that metal would be have to be used to a significant degree in any practical airframe for his machine. The most promising concept in this area was a biplane-type configuration envisaged as using a combined balsa wood-and-aluminum fuselage over which would be stretched a canvas skin; this craft would theoretically be powered by two Henson gasoline engines operating at approximately 75 hp.2
In March of 1851, nearly seven full years to the day after his life-changing meeting with Queen Victoria, Henson supervised the construction of such a biplane at his secondary laboratory. He also decided that he would personally conduct the debut flight of this prototype vehicle-- a decision that undoubtedly unnerved his business partners and neighbors.
On March 22nd, with a crowd of approximately three dozen people in attendance, Henson took his machine aloft for its maiden flight. The biplane, which Henson ironically christened Icarus, traveled approximately 110 feet at an altitude of 55 feet off the ground and an average speed of 8.2 miles per hour; the flight lasted about 14 seconds. These may not seem like particularly impressive numbers in an era where a typical commercial jet can cross entire oceans at speeds of 700-800 mph and tactical fighters routinely reach altitudes high enough to let their pilots see craters on the Moon with the unaided eye. But for Hensonís contemporaries, it must have seemed like theyíd witnessed the Second Coming; for Henson himself and his partners, it was a moment of sweet vindication.
The dream of powered flight had at last become reality.
Shortly after his historic flight, Henson was knighted by Queen Victoria and threw himself into the task of finding ways to improve his invention. It was in the midst of this activity that in February of 1852 he received a letter from American railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. In many respects, it was perhaps inevitable that interest in Hensonís invention would cross the Atlantic sooner or later; from the jury system to the Beatles, Americans have long had a habit of embracing inventions and ideas from their former mother country.
Vanderbilt, however, was in a better position than most to act on his interest; as one of the richest men in the United States and head of the countryís most powerful steamship company, he had both the financial resources and the personal clout to kick- start development of an American version of Hensonís biplane. At a time when many of his fellow transportation magnates in America viewed the "aerial carriage" as only a toy-- or worse, a threat to their businesses --Vanderbilt embraced Hensonís creation like a long-lost friend. He saw in the Henson biplane a vehicle that, if enhanced properly, could supplement his steamships as a means of transporting his companyís customers to where they wanted to go.
He envisioned aerial equivalents of railroad tracks, or "air lines" as he put it, one day stretching across the North American continent; though his letter to Henson doesnít give many specifics about his reaction to the news of Icarusí maiden flight, Vanderbilt must have liked what he heard about it, because in the letter he stated plainly that he wanted to invest in Hensonís aviation research efforts.
It was an offer Henson found difficult to resist...
If network television had existed when Vanderbilt left America in late March of 1852 to visit William Samuel Henson in Britain, chances are their meeting might have been the lead story on most evening newscasts for weeks. At the very least it would have garnered considerable video footage during those newscasts-- Vanderbilt was already a well-known figure in America thanks to his business dealings, and Henson was fast gaining fame in the former colonies as details of his flight trickled across the Atlantic.
"Men will be talking about this moment long after I have passed on." Vanderbilt told his most trusted assistant when he arrived at Henson's Somerset home. And he was more right than he knew...
To Be Continued
1From a written account of the incident in the manís personal journal; the fumes he refers to were most likely the exhaust from the machineís petrol engines.