John Stringfellow (1799 - 1883)
a pioneer of aviation
The desire of human beings to conquer the skies began in the late 1700s with experiments in gas or hot air balloons. Successful manned flights took to the air in France, Italy, England and the USA. By 1831 in Chard, John Stringfellow, originally from Yorkshire, working by day using his engineering skills to produce bobbins for the local lace-making machines, was in his spare time experimenting with propeller driven balloons and gliders. The diarist Arthur Hull noted that a balloon constructed by Stringfellow landed on Windwhistle Hill.
In 1835, William Henson took over the small Oram’s Lace Mill. It is not clear when or how Stringfellow and Henson met, maybe at Chard Institute where scientific topics were demonstrated and discussed. There is a story that Stringfellow was fond of tossing sheets of cardboard (possibly model aerofoils) across the empty gallery between lectures. By 1840, the men were working together on a study of bird flight. Through spyglasses they observed the birds flying across the countryside and Stringfellow used taxidermy specimens of rooks to calculate what length of wing supported the weight of the bird.
The two men concluded that while flapping wings were fine for birds, their machine would have stationery wings, set at a slight angle to the wind and propelled by a steam engine. In the summer of 1841, to test what wing shape and size would be suitable, Stringfellow boarded a Great Western Railway train, bound for London, and launched different shapes and sizes of wings through a carriage window, using the speed of the train as a wind tunnel.
Listen to John Stringfellow explain how he was inspired by birds.
Formal Agreement between John Stringfellow and William Henson
Grateful thanks to Geoff at The Travel Trunk for allowing us to use
this video in our story of John Stringfellow.
Stringfellow continued to refine his design, halving the size of the model. In 1848 with a light-weight wood frame and close fitting silk or cotton fabric and a steam driven engine, he successfully accomplished some short flights in a large empty room in Oram’s Mill, witnessed by many people. Therefore, John Stringfellow of Chard was the first to achieve recorded, powered flight.
In 1848 they experimented on Bewley Down with a 20 foot model, but wind and rain spoiled the trial. Henson then emigrated to the USA. Stringfellow continued to refine his design, halving the size of the model. With a light-weight wood frame and close fitting silk or cotton fabric, he successfully accomplished some short flights in a large empty room in Oram’s Mill, witnessed by many people. His improved six unit boiler to drive a biplane won a prize in 1868. Stringfellow was a polymath, experimenting with photography and electricity, designing a highly efficient multicell mobile battery for medical use.
The next big steps in flight, however, were taken by the Wright Brothers in 1903, when they had the advantage of using the new fuel of petroleum to power their light-weight engine.
30th May 1912 was an extra special day in Chard. 64 years after Stringfellow’s aeroplane flew in a Chard Lacemill in 1848 and just 9 years after the Wright Brothers flew in 1903 the town had its first visit from an aeroplane. The pilot, Henri Salmet, was a French aviation pioneer. In 1912, sponsored by the Daily Mail, he was touring Britain in his Bleriot aeroplane The tour was to demonstrate the new sport of aviation. His invitation to visit the town came from another Chard notary, a certain James Gillingham! The visit was reported by the Chard and Illminster Newspaper on 1st June 1912.
They wrote that Salmet landed at Snowden where a crowd of three to four thousand had assembled. He was met by Gillingham and the town mayor, Alderman S. Dening. They visited Stringfellows house and the cemetery where he was buried. Salmet especially apologised for his late arrival as he had got lost by following the wrong railway line & ended up at Charlton Adam! He later took off again and made his way back to Taunton. It may seem strange to us today that his visit caused so much excitement but you must remember that most people from Chard would not have even seen an actual aeroplane, just pictures.
Early Technical drawing of the Bat
Models of various Stringfellow planes exhibited in Chard Museum