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by popular television presenter Adam Hart-Davis

First Powered Flight Steam Pioneer - John Stringfellow

Editors Note: Inventors World magazine was contacted by Adam just after we launched.  He found us, by chance, at the news-stand.  The hugely popular Local Heroes TV programme was in production...

OK, so we were wrong!  In the editorial of our spring edition we claimed flight to be less than 100 years old.  It could be argued that the Frenchman, Clement Ader, beat the Wright brothers to it with the Eole – a steam-powered aircraft which flew, after a fashion, in 1890.  However, the plane's wheels lifted only a few inches off the ground and this hardly constitutes sustained and controlled flight.  We then received a letter about an even earlier British effort…

This story was too good to miss – possibly another British first.  It transpires that the author of the letter – Adam Hart-Davis – is involved with the making of a new television series, Local Heroes, due to be shown on BBC2 in the Autumn.  There are six half-hour programmes, each of which includes stories about invention pioneers from around the country and will feature a vast number of their inventions – including well, let Adam take up the story…

When I ask people “Who invented the aeroplane?” they usually say “The Wright brothers”.  In fact, the world’s first powered flight took place not in America in 1903, but at Chard in Somerset 55 years earlier, and the man who made it happen was John Stringfellow.


John Stringfellow was born in Attercliffe, Sheffield, on December 6, 1799.  When he was a teenager his family moved to Nottingham, and he went into the lace industry.  He became a bobbin and carriage maker, and later, when the Luddites began to make trouble, moved south to work in one of the two lace mills in Chard.  He developed amazing skill at making steam engines and in about 1842 he teamed up with William Samuel Henson, who was interested in aeronautics, and had already taken out a patent for a plane. Henson had tremendous ambitions.  He not only applied for a patent on a Locomotive Apparatus for Air, Land, and Water but also tried to set up an airline!  He made a model of the plane in the patent, and tried to fly it in London, but it was a complete flop – literally.


So Henson went back to Chard, and he and Stringfellow worked on a new plane with a 20-foot wingspan and a wonderful Stringfellow steam engine.  But it took two years to build, and by 1845 Henson was losing his enthusiasm.  He moved back to London, married, emigrated to America, and patented a new safety razor.


Stringfellow carried on alone, and when the 20-foot-er was finished he got workmen to carry it up to Bala Down, located about half a mile west of Chard, for testing.  He was so upset by people making fun of his work that he did this secretly, at night, and tried the first flight under cover of darkness.  But the silk fabric, wet with dew, drooped and became so heavy the machine could not fly.  He tried by day, every day for seven weeks, and finally had to admit defeat.

Then, for the first time, Stringfellow designed his own aircraft from scratch.  The wingspan was 10 feet.  The spars were of wood and the fabric of silk.  The steam engine and boiler, with paper thin copper walls, was carried in a gondola below the fuselage.  The total weight of the craft was probably about 9lbs.  By the summer of 1848 she was ready to fly.


The two propellers were huge, with helical pitch, and rotated in opposite directions to give lateral stability.  His aircraft had no vertical fin, and he knew it would tend to veer left or right at the slightest disturbance, so he flew it inside one of the lace mills, where the air was still.


The space was so narrow – about 17 feet between the wall and the central row of pillars – that he had little room for error.  So he launched the aircraft by allowing it to run for 10 yards down a wire.  This ensured that the machine started flying in exactly the right direction, and at a reasonable speed.

According to his son Fred’s eyewitness account, the first flight was a bit of a disaster.  The aircraft rose sharply from the end of the wire, stalled, and dropped back on its tail, which broke.  But a later flight was a spectacular success; the plane flew for more than 10 yards before punching a hole in the canvas screen at the end of the mill.


In January 1995 we tried to replicate that first powered flight.  Model aircraft specialist Charlie Newman built a full-scale model of Stringfellow’s aircraft, and we went back to the same mill to try it out.  To find out what happened, watch Local Heroes on BBC2 in October.


© Adam Hart-Davis 1995

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Editors note: As you've probably guessed, there was a happy conclusion!

A later Stringfellow Steam/Aero Engine

The replica built for the programme

John Stringfellow

Related further reading...

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