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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 9



Summary: In the first eight chapters of this series we chronicled British inventor William Samuel Hensonís development of the worldís 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 Unionís victory in the American Civil War, the postwar breakup of the Vanderbilt-Henson alliance, the birth of commercial flight in America, and how the Civil War affected military aviation technology and doctrine in the late 1860s and early 1870s. In this episode weíll remember the birth of the famous Merlin engine and chronicle Hensonís last efforts to solidify his legacy in the aviation field towards the end of his life.




The Merlin promised to be the most powerful and effective gasoline engine of its time-- if the engineers who designed it could just find a way to make it work as well in a man-rated vehicle as it did in laboratory models. However, the engineering team at BHCC1 still had a few bugs to work out before the company could even consider putting it into production. For starters, the sheer size of the thing meant that a fairly large vehicular body would be needed to accommodate it; being the most powerful engine yet designed up to that point, it was inevitably also the largest as well. Conventional car and aircraft frames of that generation were, for the most part, unsuited for the Merlin; even ATCís own Atlas transport planes would have been an ill fit for the new engine.

There was also the matter of correcting flaws in the Merlinís cooling systems. An early prototype of the Merlin almost caught fire during a routine start-up test, and had a perceptive BHCC worker not shut the thing off the laboratory where it was being tested might have also been set afire. Henson quickly ordered the cooling systemsí water tubes re-arranged to make such fires easier to contain in the future; this was only a partial solution to the problem, however, and it would take at least two more design overhauls before the Merlinís cooling system difficulties were finally resolved.

Finally, there was the engineís ignition system-- which Henson saw as needlessly complicated. Every successful aviation and transport invention his companies had produced, including the Atlas, had been relatively simple to operate. Henson directed BHCCís engineering staff to eliminate many of the redundancies in the Merlinís ignition setup and trim the number of activation switches for it from three to one. This would further delay the already twice-postponed introduction of the Merlin into regular production, but after the Magellan prototype crash the British aviation tycoon wasnít taking any chances.

The Merlin finally got its first field test in October of 1879 when the fourth prototype of the new engine was mated to a BHCC test car specially designed for the occasion; the car reached speeds of up to 63 miles per hour, a velocity then considered a world record. After further refinements, an aviation version of the Merlin was tried out in April of 1880 aboard an experimental ATC monoplane Henson dubbed the Gibraltar after Britainís famous Mediterranean colony on the Spanish coast; with its Merlin plant the Gibraltar also set a new speed record, making the fastest powered flight recorded up to that time at a pace roughly in the neighborhood of 112 mph. Three months later Hensonís factories began building Merlin engines for installation in a new breed of cars and airplanes.


Henson viewed the Merlinís debut with pride...and a small touch of melancholy. Though no one had come right out and said it yet, at least not in his presence, he knew his aviation career was approaching its end and he suspected the days of his life might be numbered too. Nearly thirty years had passed since the Icarusí historic maiden flight, and the lacemaker-turned-aircraft pioneer-turned-captain of industry was well into his seventies by this time; his body wasnít immune to the ravages of time, and all too soon he would be forced to retire from the aviation and transport field altogether. Therefore, in his mind it was urgent to do everything he could to cement his legacy in the annals of aircraft and automotive technology while he still had the time.

Accordingly, within two weeks after production began on the Merlin, Henson embarked on the last great development project of his career: the creation of an aircraft specifically designed to fly across the Atlantic. Ever since pioneering French aviator David-Michel Atteau had successfully flown an ATC biplane across the English Channel in 1866, men had dreamed of spanning the vast breadth of the ocean in airplanes, and now Henson saw the perfect chance to top off his years in the aviation field with one last grand display of his daring and genius.

That project, as it turned out, would occupy much of the final years of Hensonís life; even after he stepped down as chairman of ATC he would continue to play a considerable role in the trans- Atlantic aircraft project. The trans-Atlantic plane, known as the Leviathan because of its sheer size, was the largest aircraft yet designed; by comparison it made even the Atlas, a fairly big plane in its own right, look miniscule. Construction of the huge experimental plane wouldnít be completed until August of 1882, ten months after President James Garfield was assassinated in the United States.

Prior to the Leviathanís attempt to cross the Atlantic, ATC test pilots took the plane on a series of dry runs into some of Europeís major cities to gauge the planeís endurability. After each run Henson and his engineers took what theyíd learned from their successes and failures on these test flights and used it to refine the Leviathanís airframe; notes were made on the increases in duration of each flight so that the planeís fuel  capacity could be adjusted accordingly. Aviation and weather experts were brought in from the United States and Canada to advise Leviathanís flight crew on the vagaries of North American air currents and how those vagaries could affect an aircraftís performance.

In May of 1883 the Leviathan was finally ready to make its historic first attempt to cross the Atlantic. To Hensonís great embarrassment, a fuel leak compelled the Leviathanís flight crew to turn back just minutes before they would have reached the Irish coast; examination of the plane by company inspectors and Royal Air Ministry officials subsequently attributed the leak to an improperly connected engine valve, prompting the unfortunate mechanic responsible for the glitch to resign from ATC before he was sacked. Once the malfunction was corrected, Henson and his team regrouped, scheduling a second attempt for July.

This time luck was on Hensonís side: at 6:30 AM London time on  the morning of July 6th, 1883 the Leviathan took off from England and successfully traversed the North Atlantic in a seven-hour-long flight that culminated in a landing at Bostonís Paul Revere Airfield.2 President Chester Arthur, then in the third year of his White House tenure, personally greeted the Leviathanís crew when they touched down at the main airstrip and sent Henson a congratulatory wire later that day. Even Hensonís rivals at EACC had to concede that it was an impressive achievement, and rued the fact that their own experiments with four-engined aircraft hadnít been more successful.

On the heels of the Leviathanís triumphant England-to-Boston voyage, Henson had the plane refueled and sent to New York City to attempt the fulfillment of another long-standing aviation dream: a nonstop flight across the continental United States. The scheduled destination of this flight was San Francisco, where a California-based subsidiary of Allegheny Flying Machines hoped to use the data from that flight to improve their own experimental aircraft, a machine called the Titania intended to travel across the Pacific just as the Leviathan had spanned the Atlantic.


In early August of 1883 William Samuel Henson made his final visit to America to witness the start of the Leviathanís attempt to fly from New York City to San Francisco nonstop; as had been the case with Leviathanís London-to-Boston run, a sizable press contingent was on hand to cover the start of her transcontinental journey. However, an equally important story was taking place in San Francisco far out of the media eye: the engineering team working on the Titania, many of whom were old hands from EACCís Columbia seaplane development project, had set to work on finding ways to modify Titaniaís airframe in order to turn it into the worldís largest floatplane.

Though Titania had originally been conceived as a land-based aircraft, its design staff had soon concluded that it would work better as a seaplane, particularly given the sheer size of the Pacific Ocean and the proliferation of harbors along the coasts of Asia. And it wasnít just the Titaniaís engineering team who believed that seaplanes represented the best hope for air travel  across the Pacific; informed aviation science opinion throughout the world at that time favored large pontoon-equipped seaplanes as the way to go when it came to building aircraft for the task of crossing the Pacific. This was especially true in Japan, where the embryonic aviation field in that island nation saw seaplanes as the Japanese empireís best means of expanding its economic and military strength in the years leading up to the start of the 20th century.

The Leviathanís cross-country flight began just after 10:30 AM3 on August 5th, 1883 and proceeded largely without incident until 1:12 PM that afternoon, when the plane had the misfortune to encounter a rather sizable flock of birds just southeast of Kansas City. One of those birds got caught and shredded in the propeller of Leviathanís third engine; the damage resulting from the birdstrike, while not serious, noticeably reduced the planeís traveling speed and forced her crew to make an emergency visit to Colorado Springs to get the affected propeller repaired.

Once the repairs were completed, Leviathan resumed its journey and though the goal of nonstop flight could obviously not be met, her crew still hoped to make it to San Francisco-- which they did at 7:12 PM4 when Leviathan touched down near what is today Kezar Stadium. Though another decade would have to pass before nonstop flights became a reality, Leviathanís flight crew had succeeded in one highly important respect: they had traveled across the United States in less than twelve hours, demonstrating that it was indeed feasible to make transcontinental flights with the right combination of airframe and engine. After their landing, the Leviathanís crew met with Titaniaís engineers for debriefing on the flight and the results of that debriefing were duly noted in the engineersí logbooks.

Henson spent the final months of his tenure as ATC chairman overseeing the start of development of a cargo transport version of the Leviathan for regular air delivery service between Europe and North America. As had been the case with the Atlas, merchants quickly took an interest in the new cargo plane and orders began rolling in before the preliminary series of test flights had been concluded; by March of 1884 the first production models of the Leviathan II had begun rolling off the assembly line at ATCís factories in Britain. One month later, Allegheny Flying Machines would begin producing the new planeís American version, known as the Saratoga after the 1777 victory that had turned the tide of the Revolutionary War.

William Samuel Henson retired as ATC chairman in May of 1884 but continued to act as a technical consultant on the Leviathan and Titania development programs until September, when ill health forced him to abandon this work. And even then ATC engineers, out of respect for Hensonís role as an aviation pioneer, would go on keeping him abreast of their activities.


"THE PACIFIC SKY CONQUERED!" boasted the headline on the San Francisco Examinerís front page on June 1st, 1885 after Titania successfully flew from San Francisco to Hong Kongís Kowloon Bay. For the citizens of Hong Kong, some of whom had never seen an airplane in their lives until then, Titaniaís arrival in their city was an historic occasion, and within a few days after it landed the massive seaplaneís crew was invited to Beijing for an audience with Chinaís emperor.

Titania and its flight crew returned to America in mid-July, when they learned that a series of heart attacks had left Henson confined to his bed, unable to speak or even move. Hensonís body had finally succumbed to the strain of years of hard work in the aviation field, and even to the most casual observer it was clear the great aerospace genius wasnít long for this world. In his will Henson had elected to leave most of his fortune to his wife Sarah and their family; longtime partner D.E. Colombine, who had succeeded him as ATC chairman, would inherit the rest along with Hensonís shares in the company.

William Henson died on September 3rd, 1885, forty-one years and just over two months since the day of his world-changing audience with Queen Victoria. Fittingly it was Victoria who delivered the eulogy at his funeral; in that eulogy she called him "the man who gave the heavens to us all", and it was a perfect epitaph for the inventor. In New York, his former partners-turned-rivals at EACC lowered the flags at the companyís headquarters to half-mast, an honor normally reserved for statesmen and military heroes. Over in Philadelphia, all work at Allegheny Flying Machinesí primary offices and factories was suspended for a moment of silence in Hensonís memory. The tomb in which Henson was laid to rest was decorated with carvings representing his achievements in aviation and automotive technology.

All over the world, in fact, people were taking note of Hensonís passing-- and readying themselves for the next great wave of advances in the transport revolutions heíd started...


To Be Continued



1 British Horseless Carriage Company.

2 A former Union Army fighter base that was converted to civilian use in the early 1870s; it would serve as Bostonís principal commercial airfield until the early 1910s.

3 Eastern Standard Time, which would have been around 7:30 AM Pacific Time.

4 4:12 PM Pacific Time.


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