Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum
The war in the air?

By Professor Leonidas Grymm

While all of us are familiar with the use of balloons during the War Between the States, it may come as a surprise to know that had things gone a little differently there may well have been a very different kind of air war between 1861 and 1865.

The story starts as far back as 1799 when Sir George Cayley of Yorkshire came up with the idea of a craft that would have stationary wings to give lift and flappers to give thrust. The craft also had a moveable tail that would give control. Cayley was so impressed by this concept that he engraved a drawing of the machine on a small, silver disc thus recording for prosperity the worlds first fixed wing aircraft. He also wrote a series of articles which were published in Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philosophy.

Cayley built a miniature glider in 1804, but it was not until 1809 that he built a full size glider with a wing surface of 300 feet. Between 1810 and 1840 Clayley’s attempts to organise interest from an aeronautical society into the problems of flight met little interest, but his enthusiasm went on to inspire others. Amongst these new ‘flight engineers’ were William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow. In 1842 Henson had a complete draft (patent No. 9478) for a steam powered aeroplane. The vision of some poor soul stoking a boiler on an ‘Aerial’ is hard to behold but the machine was, in fact, designed to take liquid fuel in the form of alcohol and naphtha These two remarkable gentlemen went so as to propose an ‘Aerial Transport Company’ oddly enough the idea was rejected amidst hysterical laughter from the House of Commons!

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usOver the years Henson and Stringfellow continued to file articles for the ‘Aerial Transit Company’; had there been the backing this would have been the world’s first air transport service! Henson’s 1843 ‘Aerial Steam Carriage’ was the first propeller driven fix winged aircraft and the pamphlet for ‘Ariel’ claims “...which is intended to convey passengers, troops and government dispatches to China and India in a few days” – a most remarkable ambition if ever there was one!

In 1848 a model of the steam powered aircraft was ready for testing. This monoplane with its 10 foot wingspan (One source gives the wingspan at 20 feet) had two propellers and managed to fly a short distance before crashing. The world's first heavier-than-air powered flight had been achieved. Sadly Henson and his wife Sarah left England shortly after for the United States where they lived in Newark, New Jersey and his research into flying machines stopped.

A rather witty article in Scientific American read as follows: “An Air Navigator. A series of experiments have been made beneath an immense tent in Cremorne Gardens, London, by a Mr. Stringfellow – a fine name for suspension. The inventor marches through the air by a machine which sustains and propels itself through the cicumambient [sic] fluid. The machine excited considerable attention and surprised all the spectators by its wonderful performance. The next expedition that is fitted out by the British government to explore the Niger and the country through which it winds its sluggish and pestilential way, should employ this Mr. Stringfellow with a number of his machines to make a flying exploration, untrammelled with their heels in mud or water.” (Scientific American. Volume 4, Issue 1, p.4 Scientific American, inc. etc. September 23, 1848 New York)

During the years that Henson and Stringfellow worked on ‘Ariel’ Sir George Cayley’s experiments continued and, in 1849 he made a small glider capable of carrying a small person. With the aid of a team of people running downhill a 10 year old boy was launched into the air to become the first person to glide in a machine. Another first for this year was the aerial bombardment of Venice by balloons.

Improvements to Cayley’s ‘Boy Glider’ continued and in 1853 he managed to convince his, no doubt long suffering, coachman to man the machine and glide over four hundred feet across Brompton Dale, Yorkshire. The coachman had just become the world’s first adult pilot and while his name is lost his last words on the subject are reportedly: "I wish to give notice, sir -- I was hired to drive, not to fly."

In 1855 Joseph Pline had became the first person to use the word "aeroplane" in a paper that proposed a gas filled dirigible glider with propellers. But despite all these experiments the balloon remained king of the air having already been used for bombing, the first aerial photographs were taken in 1858 and during the American Civil War balloons were extensively used for observation and artillery direction. The American Army Balloon Corps was formed under the direction of Thaddeus Lowe who, in 1861, sent out the first telegraph message from the balloon ‘Enterprise’. The balloon barge ‘USS George Washington Parke Curtiss’ became the first warship dedicated to aerial reconnaissance, towing and transporting balloons along the Potomac River.

Although Hensen had left the country and retired from aeronautics, Stringfellow went on to develop a model of a tri-plane in 1868. Imagine the world by the late 19th C. had some of these ideas born fruit, but it was be quite a few years in the future before men took their battles into the air.

Some sources:

The first airplanes
Timeline of aviation - 19th century
William Samuel Henson
Hargrave Timeline