History Podcasts

The steam-powered pigeon of Archytas – the flying machine of antiquity

The steam-powered pigeon of Archytas – the flying machine of antiquity



We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Archytas was an ancient Greek philosopher, who was born in 428 BC in Tarentum, Magna Graecia (which is now southern Italy). In addition to being a philosopher, Archytas was also a mathematician, astronomer, statesman, and strategist. He is well-known for inventing what is believed to be the first-ever self-propelled flying device known as the Flying Pigeon.

When Archytas was young, he was taught by Philolaus. He became a Pythagorean, believing that only arithmetic could provide a basis for satisfactory proofs, and that this could not be accomplished via geometry. He taught mathematics to Eudoxus of Cnidus and Menaechmus. To Archytas, everything revolved around and could be explained by mathematics. He viewed mathematics as being broken into four branches: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. In a preface to one of his writings (identified by some as “On Mathematics” and others as “On Harmonics”), Archytas wrote:

Mathematicians seem to me to have excellent discernment, and it is not at all strange that they should think correctly about the particulars that are; for inasmuch as they can discern excellently about the physics of the universe, they are also likely to have excellent perspective on the particulars that are. Indeed, they have transmitted to us a keen discernment about the velocities of the stars and their risings and settings, and about geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and, not least of all, music. These seem to be sister sciences, for they concern themselves with the first two related forms of being [number and magnitude].

Archytas served well in leadership positions. At one point, the Pythagoreans were attacked and expelled, leaving only the town of Tarentum. Archytas became a leader of the Pythagoreans in Tarentum, and tried to unite the Greek towns in their area to form an alliance against non-Greek neighbors. Although under Tarentum law one person could only hold the post of commander-in-chief for one year, Archytas was elected into the position for seven consecutive years. During this time he was close friends with Plato, and it is believed that he saved Plato’s life at one time.

Archytas of Tarentum. Image source: Wikipedia

It is said that Archytas’ most important contribution was that he was the founder of mathematical mechanics. He was the inventor of what is known as “the first autonomous volatile machine of antiquity” – the Flying Pigeon. Archytas’ steam-powered Flying Pigeon was a highly advanced invention for his time. It was called the Flying Pigeon because its structure resembled a bird in flight. It was built of wood, and was one of the first studies into how birds fly.

The lightweight body of the Flying Pigeon was hollow with a cylindrical shape, with wings projected out to either side, and smaller wings to the rear. The front of the object was pointed, like a bird’s beak. The shape of the structure was very aerodynamic, for maximum flying distance and speed. The rear of the Flying Pigeon had an opening that led to the internal bladder. This opening was connected to a heated, airtight boiler. As the boiler created more and more steam, the pressure of the steam eventually exceeded the mechanical resistance of the connection, and the Flying Pigeon took flight. The flight continued for several hundred meters. The Flying Pigeon is sometimes referred to as the first robot.

Click here for a reconstruction showing what the fling pigeon would have looked like.

It is believed that Archytas died in a shipwreck in 347 BC near the shore of Mattinata. His body lay unburied until a sailor cast a handful of sand upon it, so that Archytas would not have to wander on this side of the Styx for a hundred years. This story was never verified. Even after his death, Archytas’ works live on. His significant contributions to mathematics and mechanics remain useful to this day. Although the extent of his philosophical relationships is not known, it is said that Archytas influenced the works of both Plato and Aristotle. A crater on the moon has been named Archytas in his honor. It is clear that his contributions to modern society, including mathematical advances and the Flying Pigeon, were significant.

Featured image: The steam-powered flying pigeon of Archytas. Image source .

Sources:

Archytas - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/archytas/

Archytas of Tarentum - The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. Available from: http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Archytas.html

The flying pigeon of Archytas – Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. Available from: http://kotsanas.com/gb/exh.php?exhibit=2001001

Archytas – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archytas

First robot created in 400 BC was a steam-powered pigeon – Mental Floss. Available from: http://mentalfloss.com/article/13083/first-robot-created-400-bce-was-steam-powered-pigeon

By M R Reese


A Brief History of Robot Birds

Our recent post on the history of the cuckoo clock inspired some research into other examples of early, non-timekeeping robot birds. For centuries, birds–pigeons and canaries in particular–have been a popular subject for inventors and engineers experimenting with early mechanical systems and robotics. Take, for example, Bubo, the ancient clockwork owl seen in the 1981 film Clash of The Titans. Bubo was forged by Hephaestus to aid Perseus in his quest and Bubo was, of course, purely fictional. There were however, actual avian automatons in actual ancient Greece.

The earliest example dates to 350 B.C.E. when the mathematician Archytas of Tarentum, who some credit with inventing the science of mechanics, is said to have created a mechanical wooden dove capable of flapping its wings and flying up to 200 meters, powered by some sort of compressed air or internal steam engine. Archytas’ invention is often cited as the first robot, and, in light of recent technological advancements, perhaps we could even consider it to be the first drone the very first machine capable of autonomous flight. Very few details are actually known about the ancient mechanical dove, but it seems likely that it was connected to a cable and flew with the help of a pulley and counterweight. This early wind-up bird was chronicled a few hundred years later in the pages of a scientific text by a mathematician, Hero of Alexandria.

Three examples of pneumatic birds designed by Hero of Alexandria (image: The Pneumatics of Hero von Alexandria)

In his treatise on pneumatics, Hero also outlined his own designs for several different types of artificial birds that could move and sing in response to flowing water that pushed air through small tubes and whistles concealed within his carved birds. From these basic designs, the interest and intrigue surrounding mechanical birds, and automatons in general, only grew as the centuries passed.

inset: da Vinci’s sketch of a mechanical bird. main image: a 19th century toy based on a similar design (image: Leonardo’s Lost Robots)

It’s well known that Leonard da Vinci was fascinated by the idea of human flight. He obsessively observed the motion of birds in flight and created dozens of designs for flying machines of all shapes and sizes – from bat-winged gliders to corkscrew helicopters. He dissected and diagrammed bird wings in efforts to unlock the secrets of flight, recording everything in a codex dedicated to flight written in the early 16th century. Around that same time, da Vinci used what he learned to create a mechanical bird for a stage production. The bird was by all accounts a relatively simple thing that flapped its wings via a mechanism activated as it descended down a cable. During da Vinci’s day, such high-wire birds were used in Florence as part of the “Scoppio del Carro” tradition, during which a mechanical dove known as the “Columbina” is used to help ignite a cart of fireworks as a way to ring in the Easter Holiday. The tradition continues today. In the incredibly entertaining but historically dubious television series “Da Vinci’s Demons,” the titular artist creates a highly elaborate mechanical dove that bares more of a resembles to Haphaestus’s Bubo than to a simple theatrical prop:

Leonardo da Vinci’s Columbina from “Da Vinci’s Demons” (image: Da Vinci’s Demons)

Perhaps the most famous mechanical bird appeared during the 18th century when French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson astounded the public with a duck that could quack, rear up on its legs, bow its neck, flap its wings, drink, eat, and, most impressive, poop. As they say, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck – unless it’s a robot, that is. Vaucanson charged a steep fee to witness his famous clockwork canard and the gold-plated duck quickly became the talk of France, even earning the acknowledgment of Voltaire, who wryly commented, “without the shitting duck of Vaucanson, there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France.”

Jacques de Vaucanson’s digesting duck (image: wikimedia commons)

Vaucanson alleged that his creation used a complex system of artificial bowels filled with chemicals to “digest” the grain, then evacuate it through the duck’s mechanical sphincter (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write). While it made Vaucanson famous and was surely a hit at parties, the duck’s digestion digestion was a hoax – though still quite impressive. In reality, it used an elaborate mechanical system concealed in the podium wherein grain was collected in one chamber and artificial excrement made of dyed breadcrumbs was released from another. However, the hoax was not revealed for more than 100 years. Long after the digesting duck had been forgotten, it was re-discovered in a pawnshop attic, repaired by Swiss clockmaker, and eventually fell into the hands of magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the man from whom Houdini took his name, before disappearing once again in the late 19th century. Robert-Houdin was also a clockmaker who used his talent to create several of his own elaborate automata.

One of Robert-Houdin’s “teaching” automatons (image: Maison de la Magie)

To perfect his mechanical birds, Robert-Houdin spent his days climbing trees and listening to bird songs, trying to reproducer them on his own. The next step was to create a whistle tuned to a specific birdsong, then figure out a system to play the whistle while animating the bird’s beak and wings in sync with the sound. Houdin then took his mechanical bird a step further. He created an innovative combination of automata that included both a basic android –more specifically, a mechanical woman– and a mechanical canary. The “woman” cranked a serinette –a type of music box often used by real people to teach real canaries to sing– that played a song the canary would then imperfectly imitate. The process was repeated: the woman cranked the serinette again, but on the second turn, the canary’s imitation improved. The process continued until the canary “learned” the song and could reproduce it perfectly. Robert-Houdin’s automaton not only reproduced a song, but also the apparent learning of a song.

There were many other different types of automata built during the centuries that these early robot birds were crafted, but these early robot birds were both displays of technological savvy and reflections of trends (training canaries was all the rage in 19th century France), as well as expressions of man’s efforts to understand and to master the natural world. Our fascination with the mechanics of bird and birdsong continues to this day. In our next post, we’ll look at some of the more recent bird-machine hybrids.


Finley Hunt’s Flying Machine

Halfway through the Civil War, a dentist in Richmond,Virginia, of unknown engineering ability, theorized that he could build an airplane. Dr. R. Finley Hunt thought his steam-powered vehicle could help the Confederacy. So he wrote to President Jefferson Davis of his “invention of a flying machine intended to be used for war purposes in the existing conflict.”

From This Story

Photo Gallery

The letter is part of a 286-page collection of Hunt’s personal papers that sold at auction last week for $23,309. The papers include sketches of Hunt’s design for a flying machine, newspaper clippings, and letters between him and Confederate leaders.

In 1863, Davis referred Hunt to Robert E. Lee, who in turn directed him to Colonel Jeremy F. Gilmer, Chief of the Engineer Bureau for the Confederacy. Gilmer appointed a board of engineers to review Hunt’s idea, but the report came back unfavorable.

Hunt later appealed to Davis that he needed the help of “a machinist in the armory” to build and test his flying device. He believed that with some mechanical assistance he could succeed, and that the reluctance of the board to endorse his ideas came from a misunderstanding of his concept. In its report the board said it “differ[ed] widely from [Hunt] in estimates and results [but] will confine ourselves in great measure to a discussion of the application of steam.”

Steam-powered flight was not a unique idea at the time, but the weight of a steam engine proved a challenge for ever getting off the ground. “Hunt didn’t have a snowball’s chance of flying,” says Tom Crouch, a senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Nor was Hunt alone in thinking about aerial vehicles, even though his technical design was flawed. “R. Finley Hunt was in good company,” says Crouch. “He was by no means the only guy dreaming of conquering the enemy with a flying machine during the Civil War.” Richard Oglesby Davidson also tried to interest the Confederate War department in his ornithopter, which had beating wings and looked like “an American Eagle,” according to Crouch. On the Union side, Edward Serrell, Chief Engineer of the Union Army of the James, got pretty far in building a full-scale model of a flying machine.

As it turned out, only balloons were used during the war, and only in a limited way, for reconnaissance. Proposals to drop bombs from balloons got no further than the patent office.

As for Hunt’s papers, which sold to an anonymous American collector, little is known about their whereabouts for the past 150 years. University Archives in Westport, Connecticut had bought them from a rare book dealer before consigning them to RR Auction of Amherst, New Hampshire for last week’s sale.


3. Al-Jazari’s Floating Orchestra

Painting depicting Al-Jazari’s floating band.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Arabic polymath Al-Jazari designed and built some of the Islamic Golden Age’s most astounding mechanical creations. He invented a mechanized wine-servant, water-powered clocks and even a hand-washing machine that automatically offered soap and towels to its user. According to his 𠇋ook of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,” published in 1206, he also designed a water-powered automaton orchestra that could float on a lake and provide music during parties. The contraption included a four-piece band𠅊 harpist, a flautist and two drummers�ompanied by a crew of mechanical oarsman who “rowed” the musicians around the lake. The waterborne orchestra operated via a rotating drum with pegs that triggered levers to produce different sounds, and other elements allowed the musicians and crewmen to make realistic body movements. Since the pegs on the rotating drum system could be replaced to create different songs, some have argued Al-Jazari’s robot band was one of history’s first programmable computers.


Parent Map

Archytas Creates the Flying Pigeon

Archytas, a Greek philosopher who lived between 428 BC and 347 BC, is believed to be one of the first people to investigate the idea of flight. He created a steam-powered flying pigeon sometime during his lifetime however, the exact timing of this invention is unknown. The naming of this device came from the fact that it resembled the shape of a pigeon: wings on either side and a pointed front like a beak. The pigeon contained an opening at its rear which was connected to a heated boiler. The steam produced by the heated water caused an increase in pressure that produced the force required to eject the pigeon, which was reported to fly for several hundred meters.


Five Early Prototypes In History

Long before the advent of the industrial revolution and modern machine tools, inventors and tinkerers have been using simple mechanical devices to demonstrate and explore the fundamental concepts of flight, anatomical motion timekeeping and astronomy. Each of the following inventions demonstrate prototypes of various machines that were revolutionary in their time and which paved the way to our future.

1. The First Automobile

One of the very first known forms of a mechanical conveyance comes from the noted inventor Lu Ban of China, who, around 480 BC, created a walking wooden horse.

This was a type of carriage for bringing supplies to an army during wartime. It probably required the input of a human operator so it wasn&rsquot self-propelled, but it heralded a new way for humans to use machines to move across the surface of the earth, something we&rsquore still rather obsessed with.

2. The First Computer

The Antikythera Mechanism is one of the wonders of any age. Dating from perhaps the second century BCE, it was discovered in a Mediterranean shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera.

Made of bronze, with a complex set of gears, this marvel has been studied meticulously and is believed to be a device for calculating the positions of stars, the Sun and planets. It is astonishingly accurate and is the first known form of an analog computer. The image on the right shows what it might have looked like in its complete form, though much about its manufacture is still a mystery. It shows that the Hellenistic world of ancient Greece was even more advanced in metallurgy and basic science that we had once thought. This relic is believed by many to be the single most precious object made by the hand of man.

3. The First Robotic Man

In 1893, Prof. George Moore of Canada created his &ldquosteam man.&rdquo Although not the first of its kind, it demonstrated an independence of movement that heralded the development of true robots: walking mechanical men with their own internal power source. It differs from an automaton in that its movements are not pre-ordained but can adapt to changing environmental conditions such as the terrain or obstacles in its path. Other examples would continue to follow as the industrial revolution brought the skills of the mechanical engineer and the lone inventor to the forefront of modern culture.

4. The First Flying Machine

Think it was the Wright Brother&rsquos Flyer? Not even close. The victory for the first flying prototype machine goes to the Greek polymath Archytas, who created a steam-powered flying pigeon in the fourth century BCE.

It isn&rsquot known whether this bird ever actually took flight, though ancient writings of the time say that it did. In any case, the physics are sound, and show a detailed understanding of aerodynamics and thermodynamics. In fact, our friend Archytas was one of the first to combine pure mathematical reasoning with mechanical aptitude, to become the founder of a new intellectual discipline known as mechanical engineering. So there.

Steam Powered Pigeon | Image Credit: ancient-origins.net

5. The First Mechanical Clock

Su Song Clock | Image Credit: Wikipedia

This one&rsquos a little tricky, since the development of timekeeping devices goes back thousands of years and their ultimate origins are probably unknowable. One of the first water clocks was invented by the Chinese Buddhist monk Yi Xing in 725 AD, but his design was later greatly improved upon by the great engineer Su Song. His masterpiece was finished in 1094, a huge clock tower which contains many of the timekeeping elements we&rsquore familiar with today, including an hourly chime, an escapement, armillary sphere and infinite power supply via a continuous chain loop.

Incidentally, this design benefited from scale-model prototypes to test his new theories and to insure the proper fit of all the parts before full-scale production commenced.

Like we say, just some imagination and hard work. Easy, right?

Chris Williams is the Content Editor at Star Rapid. He is passionate about writing and about developments in science, manufacturing and related technologies. He is also a certified English grammar snob.


The First Airplane To Fly In England Was Absolutely Ridiculous Looking

Most of us can roughly picture what the first real powered aircraft, the Wright Flyer, looked like: two big parallel and rectangular wings, held in a flimsy-looking structure of wire and slats that held a prone Wright brother and an engine with a propeller. It’s general look sort of makes inherent sense when we think about how aviation developed. If you’re trying to picture the first powered aircraft in England, though, it’s a very different story, because it looks like a mobile display for a Venetian blinds salesman.

Where America had the Wright Brothers and their powered flight in 1903, our British pals celebrate Horatio Phillips and his imaginatively-named Flying Machine of 1907. As you can see, the Philip’s Flying Machine represented something of a dead end in the history of powered flight, and while it’s tempting to laugh at it now, it’s worth remembering that old Horatio there did manage to make machine that flew 500 feet out of what looked like fencing materials, which is a hell of a lot more than what most of us have managed.

Phillip’s aircraft actually had a brains-boggling 200 wings (a ducentiplane, if you’re into that)— Phillips called these airfoils “ sustainers ,” and technically the 1907 machine had four banks of 50 wings each.

This mass of very narrow wings and supporting hardware was dragged aloft by a 22 horsepower gasoline engine, and Phillips was able to fly it for over 500 feet—keep in mind, the very first hop by the Wright brothers was only 120 feet.

While this was the first powered heavier-than-air flight in the UK, it’s not really clear if it should count as a “ controlled ” flight since it’s not clear just how steerable the Flying Machine would have been. It’s at least controllable regarding speed and altitude to some degree, though.

Philips had been experimenting with aircraft designs like this for years, including a number of 1890s-era tethered steam-powered machines that ran on a circular track and could lift themselves a few feet off the ground.

Phillips’ real contribution to flight was figuring out (and eventually patenting) the way curved airfoils work, proving that it’s the curved upper surface increases the speed of the upper airflow, reducing above-wing pressure and, as a result, creating lift.

A lot of Phillip’s research was conducting in a novel steam-based wind tunnel that used steam injection instead of just blown air.

Phillip’s Flying Machine is really remarkable to think about, just from the fact that it worked at all, and as an example of how wildly unknown the whole process of flight was at the turn of the century, even after the Wright brothers’ first flights. Phillip’s strange-looking machines tend to get made fun of a lot because of their bizarre appearance, but the fundamental principles behind them had a sound basis, and his work was absolutely important in the early history of flight.


William Henson and John Stringfellow: Pioneer Aviation Strategists

‘Absolutely, ma’am. These airplanes incorporate all the latest safety features: high-pressure steam engines, double-walled boilers and the finest canvas propellers. After all, this is 1848.’

International air travel–in the 1840s? No, it’s not a scene from The Twilight Zone. What you’ve just glimpsed, through imaginary dialogue, are the prophetic dreams of Britons William Henson and John Stringfellow, forward-thinking inventors who designed a series of remarkably modern aircraft. They also founded the Aerial Transport Company–the world’s first airline–and began making plans to provide regular air service connecting cities around the world. And to prove their designs could really fly, these 19th-century inventors used the slide valves and steam engines of their day to construct some of the first power-driven flying machines in the world.

Though they themselves never actually got off the ground, Henson and Stringfellow are remembered today as pioneer strategists who helped convince a skeptical world that the air age was within grasp. Theirs is a story of mechanical genius, foresight and a quest to invent the future.

In the small English town of Chard, evidence of the burgeoning industrial revolution could be heard every day in the chattering machinery of the lace mills during the 1840s. Festooned with endless racks of brass bobbins and intricate levers, these mechanical marvels produced all kinds of goods, from curtains and ornamental lace for ladies to mosquito nets for hardy explorers. Automatic looms wove the threads, commanded by a system of computerlike punch cards. John Stringfellow, master lacemaker and skilled mechanic, knew how every swinging bar and meshing gear worked in these great machines. After all, he had designed them.

A man of his age, Stringfellow found himself drawn to the new advances in science. With his trousers hiked up, he waded through the shallow waters of the Chard canals, chipping fossils from their chalky banks to help him investigate the ancient past. In a makeshift laboratory behind his home, he produced flickering sparks using the new science of electricity. And he was fascinated by the steam engines that powered his mills and were transforming his world.

William Henson, also a lacemaker, knew Stringfellow through family connections. Henson was captivated by the new methods of travel then being introduced, including steamboats, railroads and the first road carriages. He also marveled at the hot-air balloons that floated majestically over the countryside.

Exactly how these two inquisitive men joined forces to design an airplane is not known. We do know that both frequented the Chard Institute, a lecture hall where the intellectually curious came to witness demonstrations on scientific topics. There is a story that Stringfellow was fond of tossing’sheets of cardboard’ (possibly model airfoils) across the empty gallery between lectures. Perhaps that’s how their partnership began.

By 1840, the men were working together on a study of bird flight. Using Stringfellow’s taxidermy models, they measured the wingspans of different species. Through spyglasses, they also observed birds flying across the countryside.

Soon they reached a momentous conclusion. While flapping wings was fine for the birds, they decided that a flying machine should have stationary wings, set at a slight angle to the wind and propelled through the air at great speed, just like Stringfellow’s cardboard sheets at Chard Hall. What they needed was a dependable way to experiment with this new idea. In the summer of 1841, Stringfellow boarded the Great Western Railway, bound for London, intent on doing some research along the way. Imagine their surprise when his fellow passengers spied wings of different shapes and sizes floating just outside their car windows. The inventor had somehow secured the conductor’s permission to perform tests during the journey (we might think of them as wind tunnel tests).

Both men agreed that steam was the means to propel their airfoil. The steam engines of their day were ponderous affairs, however, with great cast-iron cylinders weighing hundreds of pounds for each horsepower produced. But Stringfellow had already begun designing miniature engines, jewellike machines with tiny, soldered fittings. He fired their conical boilers with methylated spirits, burned in thimble-size reservoirs. One of his masterpieces was so light that he could even send it through the mail. Coupling those advances with the new Ericsson screw-type propeller, Henson and Stringfellow created a now-classic aeronautical design: the fixed-wing, propeller-driven airplane.

Certain they were on the right track, the team began drawing up plans for a full-size flying machine. Dubbed Ariel, the craft they envisioned would be colossal. A fixed wing spanning 150 feet would provide 4,500 square feet of sustaining surface. A streamlined cabin, fitted with glass windows, would accommodate passengers and crew. Specially designed high-pressure steam engines would operate twin six-bladed propellers to create the necessary thrust. A pilot-operated tail and rudder system would guide the great craft, while vertical stabilizers would steady the machine. A tricycle landing gear fitted with shock-absorbing wheels would facilitate takeoffs and landings.

With each pound of weight supported by two square feet of wing surface, Ariel would hopefully reach a cruising speed of about 50 mph. To achieve takeoff, the inventors planned to accelerate the machine down a launching ramp, with the wing fabric reefed back to reduce drag. Once perfected, the craft was to carry sufficient coal and supplies to complete a 500-mile flight.

Surprisingly modern features were incorporated in the design. The wing would gain its strength from hollow laminated spars that supported 26 gracefully curved ribs. Using the latest technology from bridge-building, the inventors would employ pylons, strategically placed across the span, to carry wire trussing out to the wings. The inventors also devised oval-section bracing wire to reduce drag during flight.

The wings of the airship would be delicately cambered and double-surfaced for maximum lift. Their long span and narrow chord would make them among the first high-aspect-ratio wing designs in history. Both wings and fuselage were to be covered with oiled silk, to provide a sealed skin for landing on water.

In more than a thousand experiments, using whirling arms and other apparatus, the inventors correctly identified the center of pressure and other key features of aircraft design. It is believed that they also secured the services of a mathematician who performed calculations using differential calculus to verify that each piece of the craft was as light and strong as possible.

Such complex innovations might seem impossible for a pair of Victorian inventors. But a set of moldering engineering drawings, purchased at auction in 1959, proves that the story is true. Meticulously prepared plan views and isometric drawings depict an exquisitely detailed, surprisingly modern-looking aircraft. And in the records of the British Patent Office there exists a complete patent application for ‘a locomotive apparatus for flying through the air,’ submitted by William S. Henson and John Stringfellow. Their patent was granted on September 29, 1842.

The public would soon learn about Henson and Stringfellow’s plans in a big way. Frederick Marriot, a newspaperman and publicity agent, joined the team. In a spirit that seems to foreshadow modern marketing tactics, the flamboyant Marriot unveiled a full-blown public relations campaign.

One can only imagine the public’s reaction when, flanked by their confident promoter, Henson and Stringfellow announced the formation of the Aerial Transport Company–in effect, the world’s first airline. Subscriptions were sought to raise funds to finance the construction of the fleet’s first airship. ‘An invention has recently been discovered,’ announced a glowing prospectus, ‘which if ultimately successful, will be without parallel even in our present age.’ Readers were informed, ‘In furtherance of this project, it is proposed to raise an immediate sum of 2,000 pounds, in 20-pound sums of 100 pounds. Applications can be made to D.E. Columbine, Esquire, Regent Street.’ It’s unclear just how much was raised, but a sheaf of papers discovered among the effects of a businessman who died in 1854, included some 45 pages of reports ‘prepared for the financial backers to Ariel Project.’

To raise additional funds for the project, Marriot hit on the enterprising idea of selling promotional lithographs showing Ariel in flight. Within months, images of a great flying machine soaring over the capitals of the world were decorating homes and businesses all over Europe and America.

On March 24, 1842, J.A. Roebuck, a member of Parliament for Bath, moved in the House of Commons for ‘the incorporation of the Aerial Transport Company, to convey passengers, goods, and mail through the air.’ Within a week, the widely read Mechanics Magazine published the full specification from the patent.

The English press was quick to offer its views. Sharp-tongued critics reminded their readers that no flight attempts had succeded thus far. More scientifically minded writers speculated about the Aerial Steam Carriage’s stability in stormy weather. Technical journals agreed or took issue with the inventors’ calculations for necessary power and their provisions for control. Debated by gentlemen in their clubs as well as workingmen in the pubs, air travel had become a topic of the day.

According to Marriot, the Aerial Steam Carriage would not only achieve the dream of human flight but also commence regular service from London to outlying cities. Special ‘aerial stations’ would be erected at each destination, equipped with smooth landing fields. Station houses, patterned after railway depots, would serve the passengers, while coaling stations, machine shops and other mechanical facilities would maintain the aircraft. Legions of workers, from boilermakers to stokers to porters, would service the aircraft and its passengers.

In times of war, Marriot argued, it might also be used in an air force. Fleets of Aerial Steam Carriages, strengthened to carry the added weight of munitions and armor, could assist the British empire in moving troops around the globe.

The firm’s grandiose plan unleashed a whirlwind of controversy and speculation. While some admired its foresight and boldness, others dismissed the idea as hucksterism. Some journalists offered mocking praise, pointing out that shipwrights and wagon makers would go bankrupt once everyone began traveling by air. Satirical cartoonists had a field day, depicting Ariel on improbable flights to places like China, with the passengers becoming embroiled in ludicrous adventures.

Sir George Cayley, a noted expert on balloons and winged flight, was also critical of the project. Cayley had experimented with hand-launched models as early as 1809, and had also achieved some brief flights using kitelike gliders. Interviewed by a variety of journals, Sir George expressed his fear that Ariel’s long, narrow wings might collapse during flight.

But the inventors would not be dissuaded. They drew up a business agreement to build their great machine, then set about creating a 20-hp engine for a smaller, one-man aircraft. They also began construction of a series of powered models that captured all the important features of their full-scale designs. Different arrangements, from rectangular wings to delta wing designs, were tested for strength and lifting power.

Several models were finally prepared for flight. The largest machine featured wings spanning 20 feet from tip to tip. A handmade steam engine, weighing just 6 pounds–including boiler, water and igniting spirits–was built into its fuselage. Driving twin propellers at about 300 rpm, this would hopefully provide adequate thrust to propel the 30-pound craft into the air.

Testing commenced in the pre-dawn darkness, in hopes of achieving flight during the stillness of early morning. Still, the slightest breeze put the broad-winged models out of control. Wings twisted, fabric sagged, joints snapped. Engines burned themselves to cinders, wasting a week’s work in a single flight attempt. During one trial, the aircraft shook so violently on starting to build up steam pressure that its entire framework was torn to pieces.

Despite their best efforts over several months, Henson and Stringfellow could not get enough power from their engines. While the largest model made some powered glides down a ramp, it could not achieve sustained flight.

One newspaper published an account under the mocking headline ‘Didn’t Fly an Inch.’ The Morning Herald jeered, ‘The experiments performed during the last two months at the Aleidale Gallery appear to be conclusive against the remotest possibility of ever performing a flight.’ Onlookers hounded the experimenters, while leading industrialists condemned the venture as an overblown publicity stunt. After exhausting every means to finance the experiments, Henson decided to leave the project and seek his fortune in America.

Stringfellow soldiered on alone. At one point, he even talked of trying his luck in the California Gold Rush of 1849 in an effort to find more money for his experiments, but his family managed to dissuade him from that questionable plan. By 1847 Stringfellow had designed a new model aircraft with a 12-foot wingspan. Instead of having rectangular wings like his earlier models, this craft incorporated gracefully curved surfaces, which he patterned after the wings of a swallow. Nestled beneath the 17 square feet of wing surface, an on-board steam engine drove bevel gears to spin the model’s two 16-inch propellers. An adjustable triangular tail would trim the machine for flight. This time the craft would be flown indoors, in a long, narrow room. Propelled by its airscrews, the model would steam forward along a horizontal wire until a trip switch liberated it into flight.

And fly it did. ‘Upon putting the engine in motion,’ a witness reported, ‘the machine reached the end of the wire, then gradually rose into the air until it reached the far end of the room.’ Success at last!

Within a few months, a large tent had been erected at the Cremorne Gardens to exhibit the craft. There, according to local advertisements, visitors could ‘witness flights of the Aerial Steam Carriage, taking place at three and six o’clock.’ According to witnesses, some flights covered more than 120 feet. Stringfellow’s little plane even managed to gain just a bit of altitude during its brief journey through the air.

In following years, it is believed that Stringfellow constructed as many as six more experimental craft. One large model, sporting scalloped, batlike wings, survived long enough to be captured in an eerie photo of the inventor’s workshop. Construction details of this machine reveal a steam engine buried in the fuselage. Twin, apparently contrarotating propellers were located amidships, slotted into the craft’s deeply chorded wings. ‘This machine,’ Stringfellow wrote to an associate in 1851, ‘I consider to be my most perfect craft.’

Other letters penned by the inventor during this period seem like messages plucked from the future. One correspondence mentions ‘three flying machines which I have ready for trial,’ along with a description of how the models would take off after about 25 feet of run. All these craft apparently ran along a taut wire until being released into free flight. For a time, Stringfellow also planned to construct a hall, several hundred feet long, where aerial experiments could be staged as a regular attraction.

Years would pass before other British inventors became seriously interested in aeronautics. Finally, in 1868, the newly formed Royal Aeronautical Society invited Stringfellow to participate in its first aeronautical show at the great Crystal Palace, near London. A marvel of its age, this towering structure was entirely prefabricated from cast-iron frames, into which thousands of panes of specially prepared glass had been glazed and sealed. Some claim that architect John Paxton created the building by studying the veins of a lily pad. It was a cavernous hall, 2,000 feet long and unimpeded by obstructing columns–the perfect place to test a flying machine.

The now 69-year-old Stringfellow surprised Society members by unveiling a completely new flying machine for the exhibit. It was a radical design, incorporating three rectangular wings separated by slender struts and trussed by diagonal wires. Together, the wings of the new machine offered about 28 square feet of sustaining surface. The weight, including engine, boiler and fuel, came to about 12 pounds. ‘This model,’ exhibitors would record in the event proceedings, ‘is remarkable for the elegance and neatness of its construction.’

Beneath the Great Hall’s vast arched domes of glass and iron framing, spectators ranging from ordinary Londoners to the Prince and Princess of Wales wandered through a remarkable array of aerial apparatus. These included kites, miniature engines and spring-driven ornithopters. Model balloons hung in the air. Outside on the grounds, acrobat Charles Spencer thrilled the crowd with aerial leaps of more than 100 feet, accomplished by running and jumping with a crude glider. Stringfellow’s triplane would ride along a wire, stretched between the immense columns of the main hall. With propellers spinning and smoke billowing from its tiny stack, the little triplane crossed the span again and again. Some visitors noticed that by the middle of the run, the machine was lifting the wire, as if it were straining to fly on its own.

As it happened, the prospect of launching a smoking, alcohol-fired model airplane over the heads of hundreds of spectators (and a future king) was deemed too risky. But late one night after all the spectators had left the hall, Stringfellow did make a free flight. Stoked to full power, the model whizzed off the wire, descended majestically and landed in a canvas tarp held open by several extremely impressed members of the Aero Society.

In the end, Stringfellow was awarded the exhibition’s $500 prize–not for his secret flight test, but for exhibiting ‘the most efficient steam engine in proportion to its weight.’ Driven by 3 1/2 pints of pressurized water, Stringfellow’s 16-pound model engine ran for about 10 minutes, developing 1 horsepower.

Stringfellow remained convinced that human flight might still be within his grasp. He returned to his workshop with plans for a small aircraft, which he hoped might carry a single pilot. Using the Crystal Palace prize money, he erected a new building 70 feet long in which to fly models and to serve as a hangar for a full-size machine. According to some reports, parts of his man-carrying aircraft were actually built and a test plan was prepared. But age and circumstances conspired against John Stringfellow, a man who had been born too early to realize his dreams. He died in 1883, more than 40 years after beginning his quest, but still many years short of the day when air travel would become a reality.

William Henson did not live to see manned flight either. He continued to tinker throughout his life, designing a variety of contrivances from safety razors and mining pumps to breechloading cannons for the American Civil War. But his inventions rarely brought him any financial reward, and he would finish out his days as a draftsman and sometime engineer. When Henson died at Newark, N.J., in 1888, no one apparently recalled that he had been an aviation pioneer.

Perhaps the detractors had been right all along. Modern calculations show that all the Henson/Stringfellow designs were underpowered, structurally fragile and only marginally stable. Even the best flights with their models were very short by modern standards, and historians have been divided on whether they should qualify as fully self-propelled flights. Add to this the fact the two Britons had no ailerons, no gasoline engines and no reliable flight data, and perhaps their dream of human flight was simply impossible in Victorian times.

But in the end, none of that mattered. While it never actually left the ground, the Aerial Steam Carriage would become a kind of time capsule, flying serenely in the framed illustrations and crocheted pillows of Victorian parlors until technology could catch up with the dream. Stringfellow’s demonstration models would eventually reach the collections of universities, inspiring future generations to conduct their own experiments.

John Stringfellow would make one more contribution. Years after his death, his son received letters from an experimenter seeking a lightweight steam engine. Finding none more powerful than Stringfellow’s Crystal Palace engine of 1868, the solicitor wished to purchase the motor for his own flying experiments. The writer was Samuel Pierpont Langley, regent of the Smithsonian Institution, whose aeronautical work would inspire the Wright brothers and other early aviators.

This article was written by Nick D’Alto and originally published in the January 2004 issue of Aviation History Magazine.

For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!


Historical Robotics

Many sources attest to the popularity of automatons in ancient and Medieval times. Ancient Greeks and Romans developed simple automatons for use as tools, toys, and as part of religious ceremonies. Predating modern robots in industry, the Greek God Hephaestus was supposed to have built automatons to work for him in a workshop. Unfortunately, none of the early automatons are extant.

Archytas, inventor of the first known automation (Image Credits: Wikipedia)

In the Middle Ages, in both Europe and the Middle East, automatons were popular as part of clocks and religious worship. The Arab polymath Al-Jazari (1136-1206) left texts describing and illustrating his various mechanical devices, including a large elephant clock that moved and sounded at the hour, a musical robot band and a waitress automaton that served drinks. In Europe, there is an automaton monk extant that kisses the cross in its hands. Many other automata were created that showed moving animals and humanoid figures that operated on simple cam systems, but in the 18 th century, automata were understood well enough and technology advanced to the point where much more complex pieces could be made.

Some historical representations of robots are silly, but there are many examples of automata from the past that are no joke (Image Credits: HowStuffWorks)

French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson is credited with creating the first successful biomechanical automaton, a human figure that plays a flute. Automata were so popular that they travelled Europe entertaining heads of state such as Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Victorian Robots

The Industrial Revolution and the increased focus on mathematics, engineering and science in England in the Victorian age added to the momentum towards actual robotics. Charles Babbage (1791-1871) worked to develop the foundations of computer science in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, his most successful projects being the difference engine and the analytical engine. Although never completed due to lack of funds, these two machines laid out the basics for mechanical calculations. Others such as Ada Lovelace recognized the future possibility of computers creating images or playing music.

Automata continued to provide entertainment during the 19 th century, but coterminous with this period was the development of steam-powered machines and engines that helped to make manufacturing much more efficient and quick. Factories began to employ machines to either increase workloads or precision in the production of many products.

The Twentieth Century to Today

In 1920, Karel Capek published his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which introduced the word “robot.” It was taken from an old Slavic word that meant something akin to “monotonous or forced labour.” However, it was thirty years before the first industrial robot went to work. In the 1950s, George Devol designed the Unimate, a robotic arm device that transported die castings in a General Motors plant in New Jersey, which started work in 1961. Unimation, the company Devol founded with robotic entrepreneur Joseph Engelberger, was the first robot manufacturing company. The robot was originally seen as a curiosity, to the extent that it even appeared on The Tonight Show in 1966. Soon, robotics began to develop into another tool in the industrial manufacturing arsenal.

[box type=”shadow” align=”aligncenter” width=””]Related Read:

Robotics became a burgeoning science and more money was invested. Robots spread to Japan, South Korea and many parts of Europe over the last half century, to the extent that projections for the 2011 population of industrial robots were around 1.2 million. Additionally, robots have found a place in other spheres, as toys and entertainment, military weapons, search and rescue assistants, and many other jobs. Essentially, as programming and technology improve, robots find their way into many jobs that in the past have been too dangerous, dull or impossible for humans to achieve. Indeed, robots are being launched into space to complete the next stages of extra-terrestrial and extrasolar research.

As a practical matter there are only so many ways to increase productivity, or output per hour worked. Workers can work faster, harder, and smarter – or companies can substitute machines for humans, as they’ve been doing since the advent of the industrial age. This substitution trend is about to accelerate, driven by advances in robotics. What’s happening is this: Industrial robots are becoming more affordable at the same time that they’re becoming smarter, smaller, nimbler, and more adaptable and energy efficient. As the baby boomers continue to leave the workforce over the next decade, more and more companies are going to replace such workers with machines. Overall, industrial robots today perform about 10% of all manufacturing tasks, on average. Ten years from now, the percentage probably will have increased to about 25% – not just here in India, but worldwide – with annual spending on industrial robots more than doubling from about $11 billion today to more than $24 billion in 2025.

Let us have a look at 10 of the most famous historical robots:

1. The Jaquet – Droz Trio

When you imagine technology from two centuries ago, you may think about musket balls and wind-driven ships. But in 1774, Swiss clockmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his sons Henri-Louis and Jean-Frederic Leschot completed three insanely intricate automata. The three automatons were called the writer, the draughtsman and the musician. All three used systems of cogs and wheels to perform their duties.

The writer, musician and draughtsman (Image Credits: HowStuffWorks)

The writer can write custom sentences in fancy script. The doll actually dips a quill into an inkwell, shakes off the excess ink and then completes the commanded text in excellent handwriting. The draughtsman (actually a child) makes four different drawings, such as a dog. He blows dust off of his work periodically. The musician is a female figure that took nearly 10 years to complete and has 5,000 internal parts. She plays 45-second songs, actually moving keys on a clavichord with her fingers. Her chest rises and falls to mimic breathing, her eyes follow her fingers and she bows after each song.

You can still see all three pieces on display (and in occasional working performances) in Switzerland at a museum in Neuchatel.

2. A Dandy Digesting Duck

In 1738, French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson unveiled his masterpiece automaton. No, it wasn’t a tambourine player or a flutist, both of which he’d created in earlier years. It was a duck. One that ate grain from a hand and then promptly pooped.

A diagram of the Vaucanson duck’s inner workings (Image Credits: Google)

The digesting duck was no toy. It had more than 400 moving parts in each wing. It could stretch, bend its neck, lie down, drink water and eat grain. Then, after a few moments, it would defecate. Vaucanson led people to believe that the digestion process was realistic, but in reality, a compartment in the duck was preloaded with poo before each demonstration. When the truth came out, a minor stink erupted.

Nevertheless, his gold-plated copper duck was a substantial scientific and mechanical work. Sadly, the duck disappeared at some point, never to be seen again.

3. Archytas of Tarentum Mechanical Bird

Archytas was a brilliant man with a keen mind for math, astronomy, politics and other disciplines. Some historians consider him a founder of mechanical engineering. Concrete evidence is scarce, but it seems that Archytas used his knowledge to fabricate a wooden dove (which may actually have been a pigeon) that could fly hundreds of feet into the air while tethered to the ground.

The steam-powered pigeon of Archytas – the flying machine of antiquity (Image Credits: AncientOrigins)

It likely worked because of either compressed air or steam. Some speculate that the dove worked via a pulley and counterweight system to hop from a lower to a higher perch. Regardless, the legend of Archytas’s technological prowess and his wooden dove have survived for centuries.

4. Da Vinci’s Mechanical Lion

In the early 1500s, near the end of his life, Leonardo Da Vinci was commissioned to create an automaton for King Francois I. The multi-talented Renaissance man didn’t disappoint.

It isn’t surprising that da Vinci, known for both his studies of anatomy and his mechanical creations, would have turned his hand to creating an automation (Image Credits: Pinterest)

He built a mechanical lion with the ability to walk. Upon reaching its destination, a compartment in the fully automatic lion’s chest opened, revealing a fleur-de-lis (a stylized lily) in honor of the French monarchy. Unsurprisingly, the lion was lost or destroyed at some point in history. In 2009, though, another mechanical tinkerer named Renato Boaretto drew inspiration from Da Vinci’s lion and made his own version, which walked, swayed its tail, moved its jaws and, of course, had a secret compartment that opened to reveal a fleur-de-lis.

5. Elektro

If you could imagine a robot built by a 1950s appliance company, you’d probably conjure a machine like Elektro. It was a shiny metallic biped that became one of the first celebrity robots. Elektro was built by Westinghouse to show off the company’s technological prowess. In 1939, Elektro went on display at the World’s Fair in New York, where he was a fabulously popular attraction. Like a seasoned stage comedian, he blew up balloons, told jokes and smoked cigarettes. He also moved his arms and walked, and his photoelectric eyes detected the difference between red and green.

Elektro could even smoke cigarettes (Image Credits: HowStuffWorks)

With the onset of World War II, the public fascination with Elektro faded and he wound up discarded in a basement. Eventually, he was found and rebuilt. He made a cameo appearance in the movie “Sex Kittens Go to College” and even went on national tour.

[box type=”shadow” align=”aligncenter” width=””]Related Read:

He’s now on display in Mansfield Memorial Museum in Ohio.

6. The Artificial Eagle

In the mid-1400’s, Johannes Müller von Königsberg (known widely by his Latin pseudonym Regiomontanus) was tearing things up, intellectually speaking, in his home country of Germany. He exhibited a high degree of intelligence in astrology, writing, astronomy and math, and he put it to use in his work on trigonometry and astronomical tables. Oh, and in building an automaton.

To make a mechanical version of a bird that could fly to a target, issue a greeting and then serve as escort, you’d definitely need some genius in the mix (Image Credits: Dgwildlife)

As with so many historical accounts, exact details of Regiomontanus’s work are sparse. But as the story goes, he built a mechanical eagle that flew towards an approaching emperor, greeted him and then accompanied him as he entered the city. It’s easy to see why a ruler would be impressed by such a display. And the contraption helped to ensure that Regiomontanus would become known as one of the fathers of robotics.

7. The Flutist

In addition to his defecating duck, Jacques de Vaucanson made a number of other automatons, including a flute player that wowed onlookers. He supposedly first imagined the flutist while in the delirious grips of serious illness.

A drawing of three of Vaucanson’s works. The flute-player is on the left, another human-like automaton is on the right, and the famous pooping duck is in the middle (Image Credits: HowStuffWorks)

The wooden flutist, which was painted white to resemble a marble statue, was remarkable because at more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, it was lifelike in size and shape. And it didn’t just play one tune – it knew a whopping 12 separate pieces of music.Clock-like mechanisms inside the body moved a series of nine bellows. The bellows forced air through the device’s “lips” and into the flute. The mouth and tongue changed position, as did the fingers, to create many different tones in the instrument.

8. Euphonia

Imagine, if you will, a disembodied, mechanical head speaking to you in a monotonous and eerie voice. No, it’s not the customer service line of your wireless carrier – it was Euphonia, a so-called talking machine built by Joseph Faber in the mid 1800’s. Faber researched the anatomy of human speech and fabricated mechanical parts after them. Then he assembled a machine consisting of bellows, pedals, chambers and even an artificial glottis. The operator used 16 keys corresponding to consonants and vowels, and in the proper hands it could recreate any European language in whisper, conversational voice or song.

People weren’t utterly charmed by a half-woman whispering to them in a creepy voice (Image Credits: Wikipedia)

It seems that people were a little creeped out by this robotic talking woman – or perhaps by Faber, too, who was reported to be an eccentric. Although not many people flocked to see his creation, Faber’s Euphonia influenced technology of the day and may have helped inspire the telephone.

9. Karakuri Ningyo

The Edo period in Japan lasted from around 1600 to nearly 1900, and it was a good time for arts, culture and, yes, automatons. During this period, karakuri ningyo (basically meaning mechanized dolls) were born.

Many of the inner workings of these dolls are skillfully hidden with beautiful clothing (Image Credits: WorldImaging)

The dolls varied in their sophistication and capabilities. In one example, placing a cup of tea on a tray in the doll’s hands caused it to walk and then bow. Another doll was able to grip arrows and then fire them at a target using a bow. Still another could do handsprings down a staircase. All of them work thanks to internal clockwork gears and mechanisms. They were built mostly for entertainment. But it’s easy to see how they’ve influenced Japan’s modern-day obsession with robotics and technology.

10. The Hot Air of a Steam Man

In the late 1890s, reports surfaced regarding a steam-powered man that could walk 5 miles per hour over rough land. The inventor was George Moore, a professor who hailed from Canada. A breathless account in the New York Times indicated that a gas-powered boiler was tucked away inside the smoke-belching robot, generating about half a horsepower to drive the iron man forward. Attached to a post by a horizontal bar, the man could walk rapidly in circles.

The cigar is a clever way to vent the steam that powers the mechanical man (Image Credits: Getty Images)

Amusingly, there are no verified accounts supporting the steam man’s existence. He may have been a complete fabrication that spun out of control, perpetuated by lazy or incompetent reporting. Whether the steam man existed is irrelevant. It’s still true that many inventors and tinkerers managed to cobble together robots and automatons in the early days of technology. They did so by trial and error and without engineering software or YouTube videos to guide their efforts. That makes their efforts all the more notable and earns their works of art and mechanics a permanent place in robotics history.

[box type=”shadow” align=”aligncenter” width=””]Also Read:


The steam-powered pigeon of Archytas – the flying machine of antiquity - History

John Stringfellow
1799 - 1883

© 1998-2003 Carroll Gray All Rights To This Web Domain And Web Site And Contents Thereof Are Reserved

John Stringfellow, who had grown up in the lace and carriage building industries, had a real appreciation for machines, and most especially for steam engines. He became intimately familiar with the oddities of steam powerplants and demonstrated a remarkable ability at designing and building light steam engines. Within a short time after William S. Henson patented his design for the "ARIEL" Aerial Steam Carriage in 1842, John Stringfellow became his associate. It's possible that Henson went looking for someone skilled in steam engine design and fabrication and thus found Stringfellow, for Henson's skill was in engineering and design, not fabrication.

Along with Frederick Marriott and D. E. Colombine, Henson and Stringfellow incorporated the Aerial Transit Company in 1843, to build and operate a passenger-carrying version of the "ARIEL." Their first large model "ARIEL" failed to fly and they went on, over the course of almost two years, to construct a larger version with a 20 foot wing span. Between 1844 and 1847 Henson and Stringfellow made a series of attempts to fly their "ARIEL" models but they simply did not fly. In 1848 Henson left the enterprise and moved with his wife and family to the U.S., leaving Stringfellow to pursue aeronautical research on his own.

The first result of Stringfellow's efforts was the 1848 machine shown below, which was powered by two contra-rotating propellers driven by one of Stringfellow's powerful and lightweight steam engines. The first attempt to fly the 10 foot wing span machine took place indoors, and a lack of proper balance resulted in a failure and damage to the machine. The second attempt was a rather wonderful success, for the flying machine left a guide wire and flew straight and true for about 30 feet.

Stringfellow's First Steam Engine Powered Flying Machine - 1848

John Stringfellow and his son Frederick J. Stringfellow collaborated on the experiments and built a number of flying machines together and individually. Perhaps the most famous of John Stringfellow's machines was his steam powered triplane of 1868, which was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London, England. The superimposition of wing surfaces was an idea which Stringfellow borrowed from Francis Wenham. Except for the lack of a vertical tail surface, it is the very image of an early aeroplane. It was tested a number of times while at the Crystal Palace and did, on occasion, manage to leave the guide wire and fly for a distance. This very flying machine (the steam engine of which won first prize at the Crystal Palace exhibition) is on display in the Early Flight Gallery of the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D. C. Frederick J. Stringfellow built his own flying machine in 1868 also, a steam powered twin-propeller tandem-winged monoplane, and it too was displayed at the Crystal Palace.

Stringfellow's Steam Engine Powered
Large Model Triplane On Display At The Crystal Palace, London, England - 1868
Rear View Of Stringfellow's Steam Engine Powered
Large Model Triplane On Display At The Crystal Palace, London, England - 1868
Frederick J. Stringfellow's Steam Engine Powered Large Model Biplane - 1868

John Stringfellow had planned to eventually build a flying machine which would carry him aloft, and equipped a building for just that purpose. Age and illness intervened, however, and that machine was not built.