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?

Henson and Stringfellow: The Dream Takes Shape

Born in 18 12,William Samuel Henson was, like his father, a successful industrialist in the lacemaking business in Somerset, England. In 1840, under the influence of Cayley’s early writings, Henson and an engineer who also worked in the lacemaking industry, John Stringfellow, designed a steam-driven airplane they called an “aerial steam carriage.”

There were many elements of the design of the Ariel (as Henson called it) that proved to be prophetic of later aircraft, and a simple glance at the design makes one feel as if one is looking at a cartoon prototype of the modern airliner. In fact, Henson and Stringfellow planned to create an international airline, the Aerial Transit Company, and proceeded to raise investment capital. They embarked on a massive publicity campaign that involved illustrations of the Ariel in flight over London and exotic settings in Egypt, India, and China.

They hoped that the illustrations would make people believe the aircraft was an established fact. These illustrations appeared in newspapers, magazines, on handkerchiefs, trays, wall tapestries, and lace-frilled placemats. The public was caught unprepared for this barrage, and instead of taking to the idea, investors who might have supported it withdrew. Henson then appealed to George Cayley, who declined to invest (or even to endorse the idea until they built a working model of the Ariel).

Visionary designs of the nineteenth century: Henson’s Aerial Steam Carriage

The pair built a model in 1847, but the steam engine Stringfellow had designed was simply not powerful enough. Finally, Henson abandoned the entire project and emigrated to the United States, but Stringfellow stayed on and in 1848 tried once more to fly a model with an improved steam engine. The results were disappointing—nothing more than a short, uncontrolled hop.

At this point, Stringfellow also gave up, and the entire episode was forgotten. But the Ariel did have some positive effects: its design prompted Cayley to rethink wing configuration and come up with the multiple-wing design, a feature of nearly all the early successful aircraft. The plane itself was logically designed and inspired many later builders. In spite of the scorn heaped on Henson and Stringfellow’s outrageous publicity, the many illustrations that found their way all over the world placed the issue of aviation and the possibility of comfortable flight to faraway places squarely before the popular consciousness.