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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 2




Summary: In Part 1 we charted British inventor William Samuel Hensonís development of the first working airplane from his 1844 meeting with Queen Victoria to the historic maiden flight of his biplane Icarus nearly seven years later. In this chapter weíll recall Hensonís first encounter with Cornelius Vanderbilt and how that moment led to the beginning of American aviation.




One of the first things Henson did following Vanderbiltís arrival from America was to give him a demonstration of how the Icarus worked. Though the test flight wasnít much longer than the historic one the British inventor had made a year earlier, it was enough to make the steamship tycoon that much more interested in the possibilities of air travel. Over the next few weeks, Vanderbilt and Henson worked out the terms under which Vanderbilt would invest in Hensonís research; among these was that Henson would visit America in six monthsí time to show Vanderbiltís business partners some of the basic technology behind his new biplane.

Initially Queen Victoria had been reluctant to permit Vanderbiltís involvement in the further development in Hensonís biplane, but her husband and foreign minister Prince Albert had persuaded her to let the negotiations go forward. He rightly suggested that co-operation between Vanderbilt and Henson in the quest to refine the biplane might enhance Anglo-American relations; he also believed that given enough time and aircraft, a Vanderbilt-Henson partnership might open new avenues of trade between Britain and her former colonies in North America.

In September of 1852, six months after his conference with Vanderbilt, Henson arrived in New York City on the first of what would be dozens of visits to the United States. When he stepped off the ship that had brought him over from London, writer Mark Twain, whoíd been hired by the New York World-Telegram to interview the British inventor, was overheard to greet Henson with the quip "Many men have been said to have their head in the clouds, sir, but youíre the first of whom that claim can be taken literally."

Accompanying Henson were a three-man design team, a prototype of a more powerful version of the engines which had powered the Icarus, and a set of blueprints for both the original biplane and an improved version which Henson hoped to construct and test-fly during his time in the States. The inventor established a temporary workshop near Niagra Falls and negotiated a deal with the Brewster Carriage Company in Buffalo to build two biplanes according to the blueprints heíd brought over from England.

Inclement weather prevented the maiden test flight of Hensonís new biplane, which he christened Phaeton, until early November. That small complication, however, didnít prevent large crowds from gathering at his Niagra laboratory to watch him at work or question him about his vision for the future of aviation. From the moment Hensonís successful flight aboard Icarus had been officially confirmed, Americans had been fascinated by the idea that they too might one day take to the skies;  by the time Vanderbilt sailed across the Atlantic for his meeting with Henson, there had already been fifty or so dime novels published about flying machines and more were being turned out every day.

Aviation-themed books of a more serious nature were also coming into print, some retelling the story of Hensonís pioneering work up until Icarusí first flight, others making predictions about what lay ahead in the embryonic field of aeronautics, a few telling readers how they could build their own gliders.

One such reader was Springfield, Illinois attorney Abraham Lincoln; he pored over such tomes almost as often as he did his law books, and he also made it a point to scan the newspapers daily for any new bits of information available on the latest developments in aviation research. Though he was still a few years away from any stirrings of political ambition, Lincoln sensed that his nation would one day need Hensonís invention for more than just transportation, and he was determined to be ready when that day came.


First, however, there was the matter of testing Hensonís new and improved gasoline engine, which boasted 120 hp-- a modest but still noticeable improvement over the 75 hp plants that had powered the  Icarus on its historic March 1851 flight. In addition to the prototype Henson had brought over from England, three additional such engines were being assembled at Hensonís Niagra laboratory and, if all went well, would be mounted on his new biplanes in a few weeks.

While the construction was underway, Henson tutored one of his neighbors, a bicyclist, in how to fly Icarus-type biplanes using a mockup inside his workshop. The inventor had, in effect, become the worldís first pilot instructor; his main motive for doing so, apart from wanting to share his love of flying, was to guarantee that there would be a backup pilot at the ready in case Henson was prevented by illness or other unforeseen circumstance from test-flying the new biplanes himself.

On November 4th, 1852 the new, improved Icarus made its debut flight with Henson at the controls; in contrast to the 14-second hop heíd made with the original machine, this time the British inventor stayed aloft for nearly a full minute, traveling at an altitude of 80 feet and a distance of 167 feet at an approximate speed of 18-20 mph. "A glorious moment!" he wrote in his personal journal that evening, and well he might say so; the flight of what was already being called Icarus II validated Hensonís notion that as engine power in airplanes increased, the duration and altitude of their flights would do the same.

Then came the Phaetonís maiden voyage two weeks later. Built with slightly angled wings as opposed to the straight-winged configurations of her sister planes Icarus and Icarus II, Phaeton would become the first flying machine to reach the 30 mph mark in the air; indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch to suggest she could be deemed an ancestor of the swept-wing jets that would come to dominate both commercial and military aviation a century later. For once, however, Henson would not be at the controls; instead, the bicyclist he had trained to be his backup pilot would be entrusted with the honor of taking Phaeton up for its inaugural flight.

The Phaetonís debut flight attracted hundreds of onlookers, including photographer Matthew Brady, already well-known for his portraits of prominent Americans and later to become internationally famous for his haunting Civil War battlefield images. On this day, however, he was just another interested spectator to the Aerial Transit Companyís latest aviation achievement; the only photos he took that day were for his personal scrapbook.

It was just after 11:30 AM on the morning of November 18th, 1852 when Henson gave Phaetonís pilot the signal to start its engines. By 11:32 Phaeton was fully airborne, and at 11:38 the new biplane touched after having successfully completed a five and a half-minute flight which traveled 200 feet at an altitude of 105 feet off the ground and speeds of 25 mph.


Henson would remain at his Niagra laboratory until April of 1853, when he returned to England to help oversee the construction of the worldís first factory intended specifically for aircraft manufacture. Although it would be at least two decades the first trans-continental aircraft for flying travelers across Europe would even be on the drawing board, there was already a sizable and growing market in Britain for short- range biplanes that could bring people(and cargo, if they were sturdy enough) from city to city. And Hensonís partners, much like Henson  himself, wanted to be sure that the Aerial Transit Company held the lionís share of that market. The Royal Mail, looking for a means to speed up its postal delivery system, had already placed orders for 500 aircraft with ATC, and a consortium of passenger transport companies planning to operate short-distance air routes in southern England had made arrangements to buy 300 more. Henson and his partners agreed this was too good an opportunity to resist.

But already the company was faced with challengers to its preeminence in the field of aviation. At least one separate aircraft company had been formed while Henson was in the United States, and another was in the process of being organized when he returned to England. Before he knew it, the inventor would find himself merely one among a multitude of men who sought to claim the skies for humanity.

Two months after Henson came back to England, Cornelius Vanderbilt announced the formation of ATCís American sister corporation, the  Eastern Aerial Carriages Company. As was the case with the Henson- Stringfellow-Colombine triumvirate in England, Vanderbilt wanted to ensure that he and his cronies staked the dominant claim to the nascent American aircraft market; also like Henson, he would soon find himself faced with a number of challengers to that claim. But the steamship tycoon had never been one to shy away from adversity; if anything, he actively courted competitors to his claim as the king of Americaís modest but expanding aviation industry.


There was one other factor that would spur the growth of aviation as a serious economic and scientific endeavor over the next decade: the Crimean War, which broke out less than a year after Henson and his associates began construction on the Aerial Transit Companyís first dedicated biplane factory. While it would be years before the military establishment in most countries accepted the idea that airplanes could be used as weapons of war, the Royal Army was aware of their potential as a means of reconnaissance and transport...


To Be Continued


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