Surly Bonds Of Earth:
William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first six chapters of this series we chronicled British inventor William Samuel Henson’s development of the world’s first practical airplane, the establishment of his partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the introduction of airplanes to modern warfare, the role played by air power in the Union’s victory in the American Civil War, and the postwar breakup of the Vanderbilt-Henson team. In this segment we’ll see how commercial air travel in America became a reality and examine Henson’s efforts to re-establish his foothold in the American aviation market.
Though the disintegration of William Samuel Henson’s business association with Corneilius Vanderbilt marked the end of an era in aviation history, it wasn’t as damaging for Vanderbilt’s economic position as it might have been in the past. The Eastern Aerial Carriages Company, aided in part by the industrial boom up North resulting from the American Civil War, had transformed itself from an American offshoot of Henson’s Aerial Transit Company to a solid aircraft manufacturer in its own right; when the Civil War ended in 1865, fully a quarter of the planes turned out by EACC’s factories had been designed entirely by American engineers.
New opportunities were beginning to open up for the aviation industry as a whole and EACC in particular. With the American Civil War over, the idea of using airplanes for civilian purposes was enjoying a revival in the United States; this was especially true in regard to commercial air travel, a field which in America had been dormant during the war years. The man who created a feasible passenger aircraft for carrying Americans over long distances stood to make himself a small fortune-- and Vanderbilt aspired to be that man.
In August of 1865, Vanderbilt commissioned the EACC design team to draft hypothetical blueprints for what a working passenger plane might look like. Of the half-dozen configurations they presented to him, two were wildly impractical and a third too cramped in size to suit Vanderbilt’s purposes1; the remaining three, however, showed a good deal of promise. Vanderbilt was particularly intrigued by the fifth design, a proposed adaptation of the Inferno bomber in which the bomb bay was replaced by a passenger compartment. A variation of the passenger model, equipped with storerooms for hauling freight, was contracted around the same time to take advantage of the post- Civil War surge in trade that was expected to boost the American economy in the coming decade; manufacturers and farmers were looking for new ways to distribute their goods across the country, and EACC’s designers were sure their proposed cargo plane would fit the bill if given time and opportunity.
By contracting for the cargo aircraft at the same time that he commissioned the passenger plane, Vanderbilt was writing himself an insurance policy against the vicisstitudes of the post-1865 aviation market; for all his risk-taking, he was astute enough to know that passenger flights alone wouldn’t be enough to make commercial aviation profitable. Many of his contemporaries wouldn’t be so wise, and as a result the American economic landscape of the late 1860s and early 1870s would be littered with the wreckage of aircraft companies that had made the mistake of putting all their economic eggs in one basket.
The first prototype of EACC’s new commercial airplane, named Atlas after the ancient Greek god said to carry the earth on his shoulders, took its maiden flight on March 7th, 1866, departing from the company’s main development facility near Buffalo just after noon and touching down at an Ontario landing strip approximately five hours later. Even though the plane was empty at the time of its test run, several East Coast companies were sufficiently impressed by the flight’s results to make discreet preliminary inquiries about when it might be possible to begin purchasing the cargo version of the new plane.
Two weeks later the prototype made its second flight, this time carrying a simulated cargo load to the same Ontario strip where it had finished its first flight. Interest in the Atlas grew accordingly, and before long EACC was starting to accept tentative purchase orders for the new plane pending completion of the prototype’s final two test runs. And it wasn’t only East Coast businessmen who were taken with the Atlas; in California, San Francisco merchants saw in the three- engined plane a means of expanding their market reach farther than had been previously possible even with the fastest steamships.
The Atlas development program suffered a brief setback in late March when the prototype caught fire shortly before it was scheduled to make its final test flight; fortunately, the fire was quickly put out and any damaged it had caused easily fixed. After a temporary postponement to give EACC engineers time to inspect the repairs, the Atlas prototype made its final test run without incident on April 5th, 1866. Two weeks later EACC’s main production plant in upstate New York began manufacturing Atlas planes to meet the orders which had been placed for them; by early June the passenger version of the Atlas was also starting to roll off the assembly line, and in July of 1866 America’s first dedicated air delivery service, the Columbia Transport Company of Manhattan, was officially incorporated.
At the time the Columbia Transport Company filed its formal incorporation papers, fifteen years had passed since William Samuel Henson’s historic flight on the Icarus; in that time the airplane had (in North America and Europe at least) come a long way from being a scientific curiosity to constituting a major part of everyday life. The United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, and Italy all either had independent air arms or were in the process of organizing them; in many parts of continental Europe cargo planes were hauling everything from children’s toys to beer barrels; Canadian merchants used aircraft to ship furs and perishable foods whenever they could afford the expense2; and for those lucky few with large enough purses it was even possible-- weather permitting --to take scenic airplane tours of the countryside. In one of his first official acts as new President of the United States Andrew Johnson had signed an executive order establishing an Aeronautical Warfare Instruction School, the first such institution of its kind in the world.
His partnership with Marcus Vanderbilt might have been a thing of the past, but William Samuel Henson still took a considerable interest in EACC’s research and development plans. Indeed, now that EACC and the Aerial Transit Company were rivals instead of partners Henson was watching Vanderbilt’s company more closely than ever; he was determined to find a way to top Vanderbilt’s achievements and regain his pre-eminence in the aviation field.
Even before receiving the telegram that officially declared the end of the Henson-Vanderbilt collaboration, the British inventor and aviation pioneer had been quietly cultivating contacts among EACC’s rivals in the American aviation industry. At first he’d done so as a way of aiding Vanderbilt in getting a technical edge on these companies; once his business relationship with Vanderbilt was severed, he continued to nurture these contacts as a way of re-establishing a foothold for himself in the American aviation field.
One particularly promising avenue for accomplishing that aim had manifested itself in the form of an upstart East Coast rival to EACC, Allegheny Flying Machines Inc. Allegheny had been formed just before the Confederate air raid on Fort Sumter that started the American Civil War and had been quietly building a reputation for itself as a company that made simple yet reliable planes for those unable to afford the more sophisticated and expense aircraft EACC turned out. The man who headed the company’s board of directors at the time was a deep admirer of Henson and had long wanted to meet him, so when Henson telegraphed him in September of 1866 inquiring if his company was interested in starting negotiations to become ATC’s new American partner, the Allegheny chairman was quick to say yes.
One month later Henson arrived in Philadelphia to meet Allegheny’s board of directors and was duly impressed by their enthusiasm for the proposed affiliation between their company and his. By January of 1867 the preliminary framework for a partnership contract had been worked out, and the final draft of said contract would be written about two months later...
To Be Continued
1Or air travellers’, for that matter.
2And the wind wasn’t howling at ungodly high speeds.