Richard Pearse and the Wright brothers may have made the earliest powered manned flights, but the first unmanned powered flight was made over six decades earlier in then unlikely venue of the Somerset town of Chard. John Stringfellow was the man who accomplished this astonishing feat.
An engineer making bobbins for lace-making machines in the Chard area, Sheffield-born Stringfellow spent his spare time working on propellor-driven balloons, one of which landed on nearby Windwhistle Hill in 1831, now curiously a hotbed for supernatural sightings. Later that decade he met up with William Henson, who ran Oram’s Lace Mill, and the pair pursued their dream of building a self-propelled flying machine capable of carrying people and goods. By 1840 they were busily observing bird flight and studying stuffed rooks to establish the optimal ratio of wing size to weight to achieve lift-off.
Abandoning the idea of moveable wings, they fixed on static wings set an angle and a steam engine as the source of power for their machine. To the undoubted astonishment of his fellow passengers, Stringfellow occupied his time on a train journey to London by throwing out of the window models with different wing shapes and sizes to test which would be most suitable.
They patented the “Aerial Steam Carriage” in 1842 and the following year established the “Aerial Transit Company”, potentially the world’s first airline. Discernible progress was slow, though, and by 1845 Henson had lost interest, got married and migrated to America where he patented a safety razor.
Stringfellow was made of sterner stuff and had to be.
His attempts to achieve lift-off exposed him to the ridicule and scorn of the worthy denizens of Chard, so much so that he conducted his experiments under the cover of night to evade the attentions of the scoffers. Judging that his machine, now boasting a twenty-foot wingspan, was ready to fly, he had it carried down to Bala Down, half a mile west of Chard. Alas, the early morning dew had made the fabric on the wings heavier than anticipated and the engine had insufficient thrust to take off. Every day for seven weeks Stringfellow tried to get the machine to fly but each time it stubbornly refused to. He had to admit defeat.
Undaunted, John made significant alterations to the design. Steam was the only viable form of propulsion at the time, but by developing a paper-thin copper boiler weighing just twelve ounces he was able to produce a lightweight engine. For the plane itself he deployed a lightweight wooden frame and bat-like wings covered in silk, halved the span to ten feet and used two huge contra-rotating propellors to provide lateral stability. It weighed around nine pounds.
Lacking a vertical fin, it would lurch sideways if it encountered even the slightest bit of turbulence. Sensibly, Stringfellow conducted his trials in a large empty room in Oram’s Lace Mill. Although the air was still, the constraints of the space meant he had little room for error and so the machine ran down a wire to ensure it was travelling in the right direction and at the right speed for take-off.
Even so, the first trial in the summer of 1848 ended in disappointment, the aircraft rising sharply, then stalling before dropping back on its tail. The second attempt saw the machine fly for more than ten yards at a speed of around 12mph before punching a hole in the canvas screen at the end of the mill. Stringfellow had created the world’s first unmanned air vehicle.
His son, Frederick, had also caught the flying bug and together and individually they built several steam-powered flying machines. At the 1868 exhibition at the Crystal Palace, John’s triplane left the guide wire and got off the ground on several occasions. He even scooped first prize for his design for a six-unit boiler. Despite these successes, the onset of old age and his eventual death, in 1883, meant his dream of building a plane capable of carrying him aloft was unfulfilled.
A bronze model of Stringfellow’s machine can be seen in Chard’s Fore Street, but it was not until May 30, 1912 that the first aeroplane visited the town, Henri Salmet landing his Bleriot in front of a crowd of some three to four thousand. Even though the Frenchman was late, having followed the wrong railway line, he still found time to pay his respects at Stringfellow’s grave. The scoffers were finally proved wrong.
Sadly, though, John’s achievements have long since flown under the world’s radar screen.