George Cayley
Felix du Temple
balloons and airships
Clément Ader
Jean-Marie Le Bris
Butler and Edwards
Jules Henri Giffard
Lawrence Hargrave
Etienne-Jules Marey
Thomas William Moy
Alexandr Mozhaisky
Charles Renard
Victor Tatin
Nikolaj Teleshov
Thomas Walker
John Wise
Richard Pearse
Henson and Stringfellow
Alphonse Penaud
Francis Wenham
Otto Lilienthal
Pilcher and Chanute
Samuel Langley
Horatio Phillips
was Herring the first to fly?

Francis Wenham and the Short-Hoppers

The latter decades of the nineteenth century saw a great increase in aviation activity. In 1866, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain was founded. This organization attracted some of the most outstanding engineers and scientists of the day. At the first meeting of the society, an engineer, Francis Herbert Wenham, delivered a paper, “Aerial Locomotion,” which became an aviation classic. Wenham described his research into lift and airfoils and drew the conclusion that, since most of the lift of an airfoil is contributed by the forward section of the wing, long narrow wings would be more efficient than short stubby ones.

The ratio of the length of a wing to its width is called its “aspect ratio,” and Wenham had discovered the advantages of high-aspect- ratio airfoils. What made Wenham’s findings so important is that he had measured them in his new invention, the wind tunnel, which he built in 1871 with John Browning. Crude by today’s standards (and even when compared to the version the Wright brothers constructed), Wenham’s wind tunnel set the stage for all aerodynamic research for well over the next century.

The inventive genius unleashed in the early days of flight was remarkable, but there was little to distinguish the serious researcher from the eccentric. The most serious experimenter in this group of photographs was August Herring, whose design was later used by French-born American experimenter Octave Chanute.

 The feathered approach  proved a dead end

as did Le Sauteral’s 1923 pedal-powered machine (built in 1923)

and the 1910 design (snow), which was based on a discarded (but theoretically feasible) Cayley idea.

Wenham built a model of a five-wing aircraft that he did not manage to fly successfully, but his lecture brought John Stringfellow out of retirement to redesign Henson’s Ariel as a tri-wing airplane. The plane was part of the world’s first aviation exhibit at London’s Crystal Palace in 1868, and this time, the more modest presentation commanded the public’s respect and attention (even though none of the Aerial Steam Carriage’s original problems had been solved).

In the coming years, a number of experimenters built and tested powered aircraft inspired by the Henson-Stringfellow model or by the designs of Cayley or Penaud. These aircraft made short hops and glided for the most part uncontrolled and un-sustained, but these were necessary steps on the way to legitimate flight.

The earliest of the short-hoppers included Jean-Marie Le Bris, a French sailor inspired by his observations of albatrosses at sea. His 1857 glider—which was pulled by a horse down a track and then, once aloft, allowed to glide—looked like a large bird. On his second glide, Le Bris crashed and broke his leg. In 1868, another version of his “artificial bird” (as he called it) was tested unmanned.

This time the craft simply crashed and was  destroyed. A more serious effort was made by the French engineer Felix Du Temple and his brother Louis in 1857. Du Temple flew a model aircraft of his own design—powered by a spring-driven clockwork mechanism and with unusual forward-swept wings (instead of wings that stuck straight out or were swept back). In 1874, a larger version, powered by an unknown kind of engine, was flown for a short, uncontrolled hop by a sailor hired by Du Temple. Similarly, a steam-powered hop in a piloted aircraft occurred in 1884 in Russia, in a plane built by Alexander F.Mozhaiski after a design derived directly from Stringfellow’s 1868 effort. Two other experimenters who made short hops were Clement Ader and Hiram Maxim.

Ader was a distinguished French inventor who made important contributions to the development of the telephone. After some experiments with tethered gliders, in 1882 he built and tested an ungainly aircraft, the Eole. On October 9, powered by a steam engine and weighing a light 653 pounds with pilot, the EoIe lumbered forward and rose about eight inches (20cm) off the ground for a “flight” of about 165 feet (50m). Ader seemed to think he had been the first to fly, but those seriously involved in the field would say only that this had marked the first take-off of a heavier-than-air craft moving under its own power, but it was not sustained and controlled flight.

Ader retracted some of his boastful claims, possibly so that he could obtain further funding for airplane development from the French government. His second aircraft, the Avion III, did not even match the performance of the Eole, and the French government cut off his funding. Ader was to become a controversial figure in the history of flight because of the claims he made in 1904 (belied by his own notebooks) that his 1890 flight was every bit as deserving of the accolades then being accorded Santos-Dumont and the Wrights.

Two machines that might have flown were Clement Ader’s Avion (LEn’), grounded when funding was quickly withdrawn after a failed test in 1897,

Hiram Maxim was born in Maine in 1840 and became an accomplished draftsman and machinist. In the  late 1870s, he invented the machine gun and tried to sell it to the U.S. government. The War Department found his invention impractical and turned him down, but he found a sympathetic ear at the British War Office, so he settled in England in 1881. With British support, he developed a machine gun that could shoot six hundred rounds per minute, making it a formidable weapon. He became wealthy from the invention, which allowed him to turn his attention to a childhood passion—aeronautics.

Maxim was adept at building lightweight steam engines, including one that produced 180 horsepower. He constructed a test track that would allow an aircraft to take off but would then keep it close to the track. The aircraft he built was huge—two hundred feet (61m) long with a wingspan of 107 feet (32.5m) and a wing surface of four hundred square feet (157 sq m)—and weighed eight thousand pounds (3,632kg); it was driven by propellers that measured eighteen feet (5.5m) in diameter. Observers from the British Aeronautical Society were certain that the craft was capable of flight and had indeed flown off the track.

More than one observer urged Maxim to unleash his machine, but Maxim, with an ebullience some of the British found charming and others found annoying, insisted that he had paid no attention to stability and that all he had wanted to demonstrate was that powered lift was possible with existing engines.

Hiram Maxim’s Giant, which strained against the rail restraint that kept it from flying. In this artist’s version, the machine is breaking through the rail, but is it aloft?