The Birthplace of Powered Flight

The first aircraft to fly under its own power was flown by its inventor, John Stringfellow, in Chard in 1848.
John was born near Sheffield in 1799 but moved to Chard to work in the lace industry when he was about 21. He became interested in the idea of flight and, along with another Chardian, William Henson, designed a 20 ft wingspan monoplane to be powered by one of John Stringfellow’s steam engines. It was built but never flew.

Original Plane and built a smaller monoplane. It had a 3 metre (10 feet) wingspan with a wooden frame covered in silk. Its wing was 0.6 metres (2 feet) wide at its widest part tapering to a point at the tip with a rigid leading edge and a slightly curved upper surface.The model was powered by a tiny steam engine housed in the gondola below the wings. This engine, fired by a spirit lamp, had a cylinder with a diameter of 18 mm (¾ inch) and a stroke of 48 mm (2 inches).
Complete with water and fuel, the engine weighed about three kg (just under 6¾ lbs) and drove two large propellers which rotated in opposite directions to give the machine lateral stability.

In June 1848, just months after Henson had emigrated, Stringfellow successfully flew his model inside a long room in a disused lace mill in Chard.
The model was launched from a supporting inclined wire several yards long which ensured the machine started flying at a reasonable speed and in the right direction.

A description of that launch was written in 1892 by John’s son, Fred:

“The steam was successfully got up after a slight mishap; the machine started down the wire and upon reaching the point of self-detachment, gradually rose until it reached the further end of the room, striking a hole in the canvas placed to stop it.”

 John Stringfellow’s achievement was recreated in the 1980s by the BBC for one of Adam Hart-Davis’s ‘Local Heroes’ programmes when a replica of Stringfellow’s aircraft powered by a small modern petrol engine was successfully flown in a lace mill in Chard, co-incidentally, also disused at the time.Stringfellow also demonstrated a steam-powered triplane at an exhibition arranged by the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain at the Crystal Palace, London, in 1868.

When he died in 1883 he left a modest summing up of his work in these words:

“Somebody must do better than I before we succeed with aerial navigation.”

Twenty years after his death, aided by the new internal combustion engine, the Wright brothers took to the air at Kittyhawk.