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Henson and Stringfellow

If you recall in the 1965 version of the movie “The Flight of the Phoenix” the character Heinrich Dorfmann says the following: “In 1841 Henson and Stringfellow built a rubber-powered model that flew 600 meters before encountering an obstruction”. So you ask yourself who are Henson and Stringfellow. Were they aviation pioneers? Did they do something historic? And if so what was it?

Their names were William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow. Henson was born May 3, 1812 in the town Chard, which is in the county of Somerset, England. He became a successful businessman like his father in the lace-making industry in Somerset. John Stringfellow was born December 6, 1799 in Attercliffe near Sheffield, England. He was an engineer and also in the lace-making industry in Somerset.

Mr. Henson’s aeronautical work was influenced by the world renowned Sir George Cayley. Henson and Stringfellow designed a steam-driven aircraft which they called an: “aerial steam carriage” which was the first known design for a propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft. Mr. Henson submitted a patent (British Patent # 9478) in 1842 for a flying machine called the “Aerial”. When one looks at these drawings the elements of design and construction that were later used in Word War I era aircraft can be seen.

And according to the patent it planned “to convey letters, goods and passengers from place to place through the air”. This would have made it the first air mail carrier or airline. In 1843 Henson and Stringfellow formed a company with Frederick Marriott, and D.E. Colombine called: “Aerial Transit Company”.

Frederick Marriott was credited in later years with coining the term “aeroplane”. What Henson and Stringfellow had done was 60 years before the Wright Brother’s first successful flight on December 17, 1903. They also created a very impressive public media campaign with flyers and posters of the aircraft “Aerial” depicting it in flight in exotic locations. These flyers and posters appeared all over the world. And the “Aerial” had never actually flown; it had made a very, very short hop. The reason for this is that it’s power plant which was a steam engine was too heavy and under-powered (it had 30-horsepower). But the engineering of the aircraft design itself was very sound and it would influence future aeronautical thinking.

Henson was married to Sarah Ann Jones in 1848. In 1849 he and his wife emigrated to the U.S. and they lived in Newark, New Jersey. He would go on to be known as “Mad-man” Henson. He was a broken and humiliated man in his later years. He died in 1888. He was buried in East Orange, New Jersey.

John Stringfellow was married to Hannah Keetch in 1827. He was awarded a prize of L100 pounds at the aeronautical exhibition at Crystal Palace in June 1868 by the Royal Aeronautical Society for his model steam engine. His steam engine had the highest power-to-weight ratio of the 15 engines on display. He was elected a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society also in 1868. He had a triplane design (see below) and his work laid the foundation for those that followed. Had Stringfellow had a small lightweight internal combustion engine available he would have been able to fly at least 40 years before the Wright Brother’s. John Stringfellow died in 1883 in Chard.

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