55 years before Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight on 17 December 1903, the first successful powered flight took place in England.
The first powered heavier-than-air flight took place in Chard, Somerset, England in 1848 and was the culmination of many years of experiments by John Stringfellow.
Stringfellow was born in Sheffield, England in 1799 and worked in Chard making bobbins and carriages for the lace industry.
Ariel Steam carriage
In 1842, Stringfellow and his friend, William Samuel Henson patented the “Ariel Steam carriage” which was designed to “convey letters, goods and passengers from place to place through the air”.
The following year, Stringfellow and Henson, together with Frederick Marriott, and D.E. Colombine, incorporated the “Aerial Transit Company” with the intention of constructing and operating a flying machine! With hindsight, this was somewhat premature as it would be another 60 years before a flying machine would leave the ground with a man on board but you have to admire the vision!
Henson built scale models of the Ariel Steam Carriage between 1844 and 1847 and tried to fly them but with no success. He and Stringfellow were carrying out experiments outside early in the morning to avoid prying eyes but this meant that the silk fabric got wet from the dew which added tremendous weight to the aircraft. Moreover, their early steam engines were too heavy.
Following these failures, Henson lost interest in the project and moved with his wife and family to United States in 1848.
Stringfellow continued experimenting and built new designs including a lightweight steam engine with a paper-thin copper boiler which weighed only twelve ounces.
He took to holding his trials inside a disused silk mill as it gave greater stability and protection from wind and moisture.
In 1848, he achieved success when he flew a ten ft wing span flying machine powered by two contra-rotating propellers. The aircraft left a guide wire and flew straight and true for about 30 ft at ten to twelve miles per hour.
Crystal Palace Exhibition
In the years that followed, John and his son Frederick J. Stringfellow built a number of flying machines together and individually. In 1868 they both exhibited steam-powered flying machines at the Crystal Palace in London, England. John’s triplane was tested several times at the Crystal Palace and on occasions, it left the guide wire and flew.
The steam engine powering the aircraft won first prize at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. This flying machine is still in existence and is on display in the Early Flight Gallery of the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
It was John Stringfellow’s intention to build a flying machine which would carry him aloft but he was prevented from building it due to age and illness. He eventually died in 1883.
A bronze model of the first aircraft to fly stands in Fore Street in Chard, England and signs on the roads entering the town remind visitors that this is the birthplace of powered flight. The Chard Museum contains an exhibition of early flight prior to the advent of the internal combustion engine which powered the Wright brothers’ 1903 flyer.