The Dawn of Air Travel

Forget about the Wright Brothers, the first flight was in England, a beautiful machine called Ariel.

This is from a lovely illustrated book on a 19th century family of publishers who are still in business, Ackermann 1783-1983, and is one of the many strange items associated with this printing house:

In 1843 Ackerman & Co. published 2 prints showing the first representation of an aeroplane apparently flying over London. The story of the ‘Ariel’ carriage is extraordinary. It was designed by William Henson, joined in partnership by John Stringfellow who worked on the development of a light-weight steam engine weighing no more than a car, containing the goods, passengers engine, fuel etc. to which a rectangular frame, made of wood with bamboo cane and covered with canvas or oiled silk is attached. This frame extend on either side of the car, in a similar manner to the outstretched wings of a bird; ..but the frame is immovable. Behind the wings re two vertical fan wheels furnished with oblique vanes, which are intended to propel the apparatus through the air. These wheels receive motion through bands and pulleys from a steam engine in the car. To the axis at the stern of the car a triangular frame is attached, resembling the tail of a bird, which is also covered with oiled silk. This may be expanded or contracted at pleasure and is moved up or down for the purpose for making the machine ascend or descend. Beneath the tail is a rudder for directing the course of the machine to the right and the left.

A patent was registered in September 1842 for ‘a machine for conveying goods, letters, and passengers from place to place through the air.’ The MP for Bath moved a motion the following March in the House of Commons for an act of incorporation for the Ariel Transit Company.

Subscribers were invited to invest in the development of this pioneering machine, but despite Ackerman selling prints to encourage the development, it failed to fly.

Henson and Stringfellow are now recognised as being pioneers in the history of mechanical flight. Their Ariel was a highly imaginative vision; the design of the wings was to serve as a prototype half a century later and their experiments to obtain sufficient air pressure to sustain the supporting surface advanced the infant science of aerodynamics. 

This is incredibly early but it followed the development of balloons, so is perhaps less surprising. What is sad is the lack of support, but the 1840s were known as the hungry forties, so maybe the timing was wrong. It was a truly beautiful machine.

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