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Mid-Nineteenth Century Milestones

An abundance of aircraft “attempted” to fill the skies in the years following Sir George Cayley’s work. “Attempted” because most of them failed to fly even though many did contribute to the development of flight. One of the most influential was the flying machine of the Englishman, William Samuel Henson, which was the first design in history of a propeller-driven plane with fixed wings. In 1842, Henson designed and patented the Aerial Steam Carriage. This aircraft, which was never built, was based on, and helped to popularize, Cayley's concept of a fixed-wing aircraft. The design showed a wingspan of 150 feet (45.7 meters), a wing area of 4,500 square feet (418 square meters), and a 25 to 30-horsepower (18.6 to 22.4-kilowatt) steam engine installed in the fuselage to drive two pusher propellers.

John Stringfellow and William Henson's design for an Aerial Steam Carriage

John Stringfellow and William Henson's design for an Aerial Steam Carriage, 1842.
It was based on an attempt to imitate the flight of birds and was the first design
in history for a propeller-driven aircraft with fixed wings.

Henson partnered with John Stringfellow and had ambitious plans for developing his flying machine. He hoped to set up an air transport company, the Aerial Transit Company, to carry goods to China. Stringfellow's role was to improve the small steam engine that Henson had built and which was to power another smaller model. This model had a twenty-foot (6.1-meter) wingspan. It was tested from 1845 to 1847, but never was able to get off the ground.

After that failure, Henson lost interest in the project and emigrated to the United States. Stringfellow, however, persevered. He built a new monoplane model with a 10-foot (3.1-meter) wingspan and powered by a small steam engine. However, tests carried out in 1848, were disappointing, and the aircraft did not fly.

John Stringfellow's unsuccessful 1868 triplane model

John Stringfellow's unsuccessful 1868 triplane model.

Stringfellow did not appear again until 1868 when he developed a model of an original type of aircraft -a triplane- with three sets of parallel wings. It failed to rise from the ground, but its superimposed form of the wing surfaces influenced later work. Stringfellow exhibited his model at the first aeronautical exposition - the 1868 exposition at the Crystal Palace in London, England. Even though the plane did not fly, it was one of the more interesting designs there. Stringfellow managed to win a prize of £100 for his steam engine, which was to have powered the aircraft and had the best power-to-weight ratio of those tested. Henson and Stringfellow's achievements were notable because they were the first to attack the problem of designing and building an efficient propulsion unit for a flying machine.

hn Stringfellow exhibited a model of his triplane at the 1868 Aeronautical Exposition at the Crystal Palace in London.

John Stringfellow exhibited a model of his triplane at the 1868
Aeronautical Exposition at the Crystal Palace in London.

Meanwhile, knowledge of the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage and of Cayley's theories of flight spread throughout France and affected the growth of aviation. In 1852, the French aeronautical society, Société Aérostatique et Météorologique de France, was formed. Also that year, Henri Giffard made the first controlled flight in an airship. In 1853, Louis Charles Letur built and tested a parachute-glider. This was the first pilot-controlled, heavier-than-air machine to be tested in flight. Tests were carried out in France and Great Britain. After several successful descents, Letur had a serious accident near London on June 27, 1854, and died of his injuries.

Also, in 1853, a mechanic named Michel Loup designed a large winged “bird” with a three-wheeled undercarriage and two enormous counter-rotating propellers. In 1856, two French naval officers accomplished brief though uncontrolled flight. Jean-Marie Le Bris built a glider shaped like an albatross, a bird he had studied on his sea voyages. The body of the craft, which would support the pilot, was shaped like a canoe. Each narrow, arching wing was 23 feet (7 meters) long and adjustable by pulleys and cords. They provided a lifting surface of 215 square feet (20 square meters). Le Bris tested this aircraft in 1857 and successfully made a short glide on his first try, but a second attempt resulted in a crash and a broken leg. By 1868, Le Bris had developed a larger version of his glider, which made several successful manned test flights before it crashed and was destroyed.

Jean-Marie LeBris' "Albatross" Glider, 1867

Jean-Marie LeBris' "Albatross" Glider, 1867.

Another naval officer, Félix Du Temple, aided by his brother Louis, displayed his considerable understanding of aerodynamics in his 1857 design for a tractor monoplane with swept-forward wings set at a slight dihedral angle (angled upward) and a retractable three-wheeled undercarriage. Du Temple's model was first propelled by a clockwork engine and then by a steam engine. The model managed to fly and to land. However, his attempts to achieve the same results with a full-scale plane were unsuccessful until 1874, because of the lack of an adequate propulsion system. In 1874, at Brest in Brittany, France, he successfully launched a bat-like plane with a steam engine carrying a sailor on board. Rising a few feet off the ground, it was the first launch of a manned, powered fixed-wing aircraft. However, the launch took place down a slope and was not pursued. 

F‚lix Du Temple's patent drawing for a tractor-driven monoplane with swept-forward wings, 1857.

Félix Du Temple's patent drawing for a tractor-driven monoplane with swept-forward wings, 1857.


Félix Du Temple's 1874 monoplane was the first powered aircraft in history to make even a brief hop with a man aboard.

Félix Du Temple's 1874 monoplane was the first powered aircraft in history to make even a brief hop with a man aboard.

In 1858, the Englishman Francis Wenham, who in 1871 would design the first wind tunnel, carried out tests with a multiplane glider, which, although it did not fly, demonstrated that a cambered wing derived most of its lift from the front portion of the wing. Therefore, a high aspect-ratio wing had superior lifting qualities. In 1866, he presented a paper advocating these views at the newly formed Royal Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, which was established to bring together students of mechanical flight to discuss experiments and new theories and to publish technical journals.

The ornithopter was never really abandoned during the nineteenth century. Following Joseph Degan's 1808 ornithopter, Bréant, in 1854, designed an ornithopter where the pilot pulled the wings down with his arms. In 1860, Smythies introduced a complex mechanism with wings that were partly fixed and partly beating. A steam engine provided propulsion, and the pilot sat on a movable seat so that he could shift the center of gravity. In 1864, Struvé and Telescheff planned an even fancier ornithopter that was equipped with five pairs of wings for greater stability. The pilot's muscles were to provide power to this machine. In 1866, J.J. Bourcart built an ornithopter with two pairs of beating wings worked by a clever system of wires connected to the pilot's legs. In 1874, another ornithopter led to the death of a Belgian shoemaker, Vincent de Groof, who leaped to his death over London while attempting a parachute-rigged ornithopter flight on his "beating wing flyer."

Struvé and Telescheff 1864 ornithopter

Struvé and Telescheff 1864 ornithopter.


Davy, M.J.P. Henson and Stringfellow. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1931.

Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. The Invention of the Aeroplane, 1799-1909. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc. 1966.

Penrose, Harold. An Ancient Air: a Biography of John Stringfellow of Chard, the Victorian Aeronautical Pioneer. Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1988.

Moolman, Valerie and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Road to Kitty Hawk. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life. 1980.

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International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of troubleshooting, research and development, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.

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Design and conduct scientific investigations. Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations.