Modern Flight Traceable to 1840s Model Airplanes

The Wright Brothers and airplanes go together but what of William Hanson and John Stringfellow? They could have eclipsed them.

Stringfellow and Hanson, it’s reasonable to conclude, probably began their team work after Stringfellow apprenticed with Hanson, an English lace making manufacturer. Both also frequented the Chard Institute at Chard, a lecture hall that attracted the intellectually curious on scientific topics.

Common Interests in Flight

Stringfellow was particularly interested in steam engines, displaying a talent for making lightweight, miniaturized engines, jewel-like in their construction. They were a far cry from the engines of the day with heavy, cast iron cylinders. Henson’s skill in engineering and design led him in 1842 to patent the “Arial,” an aerial steam carriage. Modern in design it came with movable rudder and elevator control surfaces and a cabin for carrying passengers. The following year he established the Arial Transit Company to move passengers and freight internationally.

Early Research into Flight Models

In 1840 both men were studying birds in flight with spyglasses, measuring birds’ wingspans using Stringfellow’s taxidermy models. Eventually, they reached a conclusion that would usher in the modern airplane: flapping wings would not work on a flying machine; they must be stationary, set at a small angle to the wind.

To test the idea Stringfellow in 1841 turned the Great Western Railway into a rudimentary ‘wind tunnel’ while he was en route to London. He experimented with wings of different shapes and sizes, much to the surprise of passengers who saw them floating outside their car windows.

Their first large model airplane, the “Arial” with a 10 – foot wing span, failed to fly. They constructed a larger version with a 20 – foot wingspan and for the next two years, between 1845 and 1847, flew numerous test flights but they also refused to fly.

Success with Powered Flight

Hanson, discouraged, set sail for the United States to seek his fortune. Stringfellow soldiered on alone, finding success in 1848 with a new model airplane with a 12-foot wingspan. Instead of having rectangular wings like his earlier models, this craft incorporated gracefully curved surfaces, which he patterned after the wings of a swallow. An on-board steam engine built by Stringfellow coupled with the new Ericsson screw-type propeller provided propulsion.

Success came in June 1848, a few months after Henson had emigrated. Inside an unused lace mill in Chard, Stringfellow’s model airplane model flew straight for about 30 feet after launching from a supporting inclined wire and in later flights gained altitude. He and Henson had created a classic aeronautical design that went down in aviation history as the first fixed-wing, propeller-driven monoplane, a blueprint for later airplanes.

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