Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:
William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first seven 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, the postwar breakup of the Vanderbilt-Henson alliance, and the birth of commercial flight in America. In this chapter we’ll look at Henson’s re-entry into the American aviation market and review how the lessons of the American Civil War shaped combat aircraft design in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The news of William Henson’s partnership agreement with Allegheny Flying Machines Inc. boosted the company’s profile and stock to new heights. The ink had barely finished drying on the agreement before Allegheny’s board of directors threw themselves into an ambitious program to expand their company’s main factory to accommodate the increase in production that was expected to result from its alliance with the Aerial Transit Company in Britain; in cities that had never heard of Allegheny Flying Machines Inc. before, advertisements for the company began to appear encouraging readers to give Allegheny their business when it came time to purchase an airplane.
Not surprisingly, Cornelius Vanderbilt took umbrage at the
interlopers’ efforts to expand their operations into what he regarded as his corporate territory; in his eyes EACC was still the rightful king of the American aviation field in general and the New York-Boston aircraft market in particular, and he wasn’t about to let Allegheny usurp his crown. And he certainly had no intention of being bested by his onetime associate Henson, no matter who the British inventor had recruited as his new allies in America.
To counter the three-engined Atlas’ domination of the American commercial aviation industry, Allegheny’s engineers collaborated with their ATC brethren to design a four-motored transport plane that could travel farther and carry more cargo1 than the Atlas. Of course, such an aircraft required more powerful engines than those which were standard for planes at the time, but Henson was unfazed-- for him it only meant another challenge to be overcome in an aviation career that had already seen him beat many other such obstacles before.
The prototype for the new four-engined transport, which Henson dubbed the Magellan after legendary Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan, was constructed in October of 1867 at Allegheny’s main flight testing field southeast of Philadelphia. For its maiden trip, the Magellan would be test-flown by a veteran Civil War combat pilot who’d been hired by the company shortly after his discharge from the Union Army. An EACC mole was also present at the debut flight, secretly jotting down notes about the Magellan prototype’s performance so he could pass them on to his superiors back in New York City.
Instead, he would end up recording what at that time was deemed the worst tragedy in aviation history. Just after the Magellan prototype cleared the runway, its number four engine began to catch fire; in a desperate effort to save himself, his plane, and his crew the prototype’s pilot wheeled the Magellan into a sharp turn back toward home only to lose control of his aircraft and plunge into a steep uncontrollable dive that ended with the stricken aircraft breaking apart in a burst of fire as it hit the ground just a few feet from the runway. The plane’s entire three-man crew was killed upon impact; flaming debris from the explosion killed seven other people and seriously injured at least a dozen, bringing the total number of casualties to nineteen.
When the news was telegraphed to Allegheny’s home offices, the company’s board of directors let out a collective gasp of horror. In both human and financial terms, the crash represented a catastrophic blow to the Magellan development project-- not only had innocent lives and skilled aviators been lost, but the destruction of the lone Magellan prototype would set the program back months, perhaps years, while EACC tightened its stranglehold on the American commercial aircraft business.
Even Cornelius Vanderbilt, much as he disliked Allegheny, was appalled by what had happened-- those could just as easily have been EACC test pilots perishing in a ball of fire, or one of the growing number of Atlas crews flying commercial trips between American cities. Clearly, Vanderbilt thought, there was a need to improve conventional aviation safety measures. On the other side of the Atlantic his former business partner brooded over the Magellan crash; for several weeks after the tragedy, William Samuel Henson withdrew into himself and had little contact with either Allegheny’s engineers or his own.
Eventually, however, Henson would emerge from his seclusion and in the spring of 1868 he made another visit to Philadelphia to personally take over leadership of the Magellan development project. Like Vanderbilt, the British inventor and aviation magnate felt that conventional air safety measures of that era were grossly inadequate, and accordingly he made it his chief priority to re-configure the Magellan’s design to render the new plane less susceptible to bursting into flames in the event of a crash.
One of his first steps towards achieving that end was to commission Allegheny’s chemistry staff to develop fuel additives that would make aviation gasoline less flammable; he also saw to it that the design of the Magellan’s fuel tanks was radically changed to make them sturdier and thus more resistant to sudden impacts. Though it would take at least a decade for the additives research to bear fruit, the fuel tank redesign paid some quick dividends and by August of 1868 a new Magellan prototype with the reconfigured tanks had been constructed and was ready to begin test flights.
While all this was going on, aviation designers in all parts of the world were incorporating the lessons of the American Civil War into their blueprints for new aircraft. The military biplane was less than fifteen years old, but already defense aviation engineers were starting to look ahead to the day when it would be replaced by the faster and more maneuverable monoplane. Even before the Civil War ended, Union air commanders had started to deploy monoplanes alongside their Valley Forges, and there were predictions in some quarters that by 1890 America’s air arm, the US Aerial Corps2, would be an all-monoplane force.
In Britain ATC’s chief domestic rival, Sutherland and Sons of Manchester, had been contracted by the War Ministry to develop a monoplane fighter for Her Majesty’s Royal Flying Corps3; for the Sutherlands, who’d long been jealous of William Samuel Henson’s supremacy in the aviation field, the project was a welcome chance to assault that supremacy. The result of their labors was the Nelson, whose first prototype made its initial test flight in May of 1869. The new fighter, affectionately dubbed "Nellie" by the company’s test pilots, was named in tribute to the Napoleonic-era naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson, of whom the company founder and his sons were great admirers.
But as the Sutherland research and development team would soon learn to their discomfort, the age of the monoplane was still a bit of a way off. The Nellie prototype’s maiden voyage came to an ignominious end when its pilot was forced to ditch the plane in knee-deep mud less than a mile from from the company’s primary testing field after its engine cut out in mid-flight; the second test run had to be aborted after company inspectors found a leak in one of the plane’s fuel lines. It would take nearly two years for the Nellie to make a successful test flight, during which time ATC would be hard at work on perfecting its own monoplane design to outdo the Sutherland aircraft.
Even after the Nellie prototype made its first successful test flight, however, there was still a great deal of work to do before the monoplane could become a viable part of military air strategy; the types of engine plants available at the time the Nellie and its ATC counterpart, the Culloden4, first went on the drawing boards simply weren’t powerful enough to produce the kind of high speeds necessary for monoplanes to operate effectively in combat. In order for this state of affairs to change, it would be necessary to create a new kind of aircraft motor...
In the meantime, the role of strategic bombing in warfare had become a hotly debated topic at military academies and general staff offices around the world. The American Civil War had shown that such bombing could have a noticeably damaging effect on both an enemy’s capacity and will to fight; the question was how to use the bomber to maximum effect in wartime. Parallel to this was the issue of how to make cities and military outposts more safe against bomber attacks.
The two most extreme schools of thought regarding the bomber as an instrument of war had, by an odd coincidence, both arisen from the experiences of General Sherman’s "scorched earth" air campaign in the later stages of the Civil War. One school held that the bomber was a passing fancy, destined to fade away into extinction like the dinosaurs once anti-aircraft weapons reached a certain lethal degree of effectiveness; the other argued that the bomber was the ultimate engine of destruction, a juggernaut that by 1905 at the latest would supersede all other conventional methods of warfare.
Of course, as with most other aspects of human existence, the truth about bombers lay somewhere in the middle. While not by any means invincible, the strategic bomber was more than just a fad; by the spring of 1870 courses on strategic bombing doctrine were part of the core curriculum at military academies like West Point and Sandhust, and when the Franco-Prussian War broke out later that same year Prussia’s chancellor Otto von Bismarck made sure his bomber squadrons were at the ready from the minute the first shots were fired.
Just as 20th century military experts came to realize that the best way of stopping tanks was with other tanks, military strategists in the post-ACW era gradually embraced the notion that the most effective means of defending a city or outpost against air attack was by using massed formations of fighters to knock down enemy bombers. Accordingly, during the mid-1870s air arms in North America and Europe shifted their training emphasis from teaching strike tactics to instructing combat pilots in means of intercepting bomber groups. At the same time aircraft manufacturers made a renewed commitment to developing new types of fighter planes and enhancing the capabilities of existing types.
By 1875 one of every three military aircraft built in the United States and one out of every five manufactured in Europe was a fighter plane, and of that number one out of every two fighters was an air superiority model-- in other words, a plane designed specifically to destroy other planes. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in Britain, where France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War had given Queen Victoria’s generals cause for concern that London or Dover might come under bomber attack in a future conflict. ATC and Sutherland both made considerable fortunes from HMRAC’s obsession with keeping England safe against bomber raids.
Interestingly enough, the quest to develop a new type of aircraft motor to improve the speed and manuverability of the monoplane also provided the impetus for the beginnings of a far- reaching revolution in land transportation as well. Since the mid-1850s, industrial engineers around the world had been taking the technology which made aircraft engines possible and adapting it to work with land vehicles too, producing the first generation of what were then known as "horseless carriages"-- the ancestor of the modern automobile. But as quick as these early cars were, they later came to seem like plodding turtles in comparison to the new breed of autos that were starting to roll off assembly lines in North America and Europe after the American Civil War. Those vehicles in turn would be left in the dust by the coming generation of cars that were to be powered by new and improved engines then being designed and tested in industrial research facilities on both sides of the Atlantic.
One such facility was the headquarters of ATC’s automotive subsidiary, the British Horseless Carriages Company. Determined to dominate the embryonic car industry just as he ruled aviation, Henson had established the company just a few months before his business partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt was terminated; though it had only been in business a few years it was already beginning to turn a respectable profit, and its engineering team, liberally stocked with ATC veterans, had a reputation for turning out well-crafted engines and vehicles.
In the spring of 1877, these men started what would come to be viewed as the most crucial transportation engineering project of the 19th century: the development of the world’s first 1000 hp gasoline engine. The engineers gave their new motor the code name "Merlin"-- an appropriate choice, given the supernatural effects their creation would have on both land and air transportation in the coming decades.
To Be Continued...
1Or passengers, depending on who it belonged to.
2This name was shortened to simply "Air Corps" by the start of the 20th century.
3The immediate ancestor of the modern Royal Air Force.
4Named after the 1746 British royalist victory that effectively ended Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Jacobite rebellion in Scotland.