John Stringfellow And The World's First Powered Flight

 In 1842, British engineers William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow received a patent for a flying machine. Unlike previous attempts with gliders and hot air balloons, Henson and Stringfellow's invention was unique because it was the first attempt to move toward powered flight. Just six years later, the world's first steam-powered airplane took flight. Remarkably, this occurred more than half a century before the Wright brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk.

Man has been attracted towards flight since ancient times. One of the earliest stories of flight is the Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus, a father-son pair who were imprisoned in a high tower by King Minos. Daedalus and Icarus escaped from the tower using wings made of feathers attached to their arms. Daedalus warned his son Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, lest the sun's heat melt the wax of his wings. But Icarus ignored Daedalus' warning and died.

Retelling this ancient story, the 9th century Islamic engineer Abbas Ibn Firnas is reported to have created wings using vulture feathers and achieved a brief flight before going down with injuries. A similar account from the 11th century states that the Benedictine monk Aelmer of Malmesbury attached wings to his arms and legs and flew a short distance before a hard landing injured him. In the late 19th century, a German tailor named Albrecht Berblinger constructed wings, which he strapped to his arms and jumped into the Danube in hopes of crossing it, but fell into the water.

The first major breakthrough in aviation was made by Yorkshire Baronet Sir George Kelly, who first put forward the concept of the modern airplane as a fixed-wing flying machine, rather than the comical flapping wings imagined by many of his predecessors. It was the opposite of machines. It was George Kelly who proposed separate systems for lift, propulsion, and control, and he was the first to identify the four-vector forces that affect an aircraft: thrust, lift, drag, and weight. He also discovered the importance of high wings, the characteristic curved shape that is fundamental to flight.

Taking inspiration from Kelly's work, John Stringfellow and his lace-making engineer William Samuel Henson designed a large steam-powered monoplane that could carry passengers. This grand aircraft, named the "Ariel", was envisioned with a remarkable wingspan of 150 feet and a weight of 3,000 pounds. Its propulsion was to be powered by a lightweight steam engine designed by Henson, capable of generating 50 horsepower. Henson and his colleague John Stringfellow also dreamed of an aerial transit company with a fleet of such airplanes, each capable of carrying 10 to 12 passengers across the Atlantic Ocean to exotic locations such as Egypt and China.

In 1848, Henson and Stringfellow built a smaller version of their monoplane, with a wingspan of ten feet and two contra-rotating six-bladed propellers mounted at the rear in a push-type system. To prevent the wind from destabilizing their flight, the engineers conducted their experiments within the confines of a disused lace factory in Chard. The test space, approximately 20 meters in length and 3.7 meters in height, provided a controlled environment for their efforts. A guide wire was installed to prevent the airplane from straying from its course. This bent wire took up less than half the length of the room, leaving room at the end for the machine to clear the floor. When the steam engine was started, the machine started down the wire and slowly rose until it reached the far end of the room, where it stopped its progress by striking a sheet of canvas placed there. This was the first flight of a propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft in history.

Despite initial success, subsequent efforts were fruitless. Later models built to larger dimensions failed to sustain flight, dashing the Aerial Transit Company's hopes of realizing its grand vision of a passenger-carrying monoplane. Henson became frustrated and left the company, leading to its dissolution in 1848. But Stringfellow continued exploring powered flight with his son, and built another 10-foot model powered by a compact steam engine of his own design. Its weight was only 9 pounds. Several witnesses confirmed its gradual ascent upon launch during several instances in 1848. Stringfellow himself expressed confidence in these demonstrations, seeing them as proof of the feasibility of powered flight.

Stringfellow built several more model airplanes and engines, before exhibiting a model steam-powered triplane and a model steam engine at the Aeronautical Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in June 1868. He received praise from the Royal Aeronautical Society, which awarded his engine a prize of £. 100 for its excellent power-to-weight ratio among the fifteen engines displayed.

Although John Stringfellow's contribution has largely faded from the annals of history, a bronze model of his invention stands proudly in Chards Fore Street in Somerset, with additional models preserved in the collection of the Science Museum in London. In particular, the Museum of Chard hosts an exclusive exhibition showcasing the development of flight before the era of internal combustion engines and the iconic manned, powered flight pioneered by the Wright Brothers.

Apart from aeronautics, Stringfellow also engaged in several other fields such as photography, and became so skilled that he advertised himself as a professional portrait photographer in his studio near the family home in Chard High Street. There are studios in Chard and Crewkerne where photographs of some of his flying vehicle machines were taken. Stringfellow also invented and patented compact electric batteries, which were used in early medical treatments.

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