William Samuel Henson
1812 - 1888

© 1998-2006 Carroll Gray All Rights To This Web Domain And Web Site And Contents Thereof Are Reserved

William Samuel Henson

William Samuel Henson was an engineer and inventor who was familiar with the aeronautical work of George Cayley. Discussions with his associate John Stringfellow led to his design for a large passenger-carrying steam-powered monoplane, with a wing span of 150 feet, named "ARIEL - The Henson Aerial Steam Carriage," for which he received a patent in 1843. Henson, Stringfellow and two others, Frederick Marriott and D. E. Colombine, incorporated the Aerial Transit Company in 1843, and fully intended to construct the flying machine. Henson had demonstrated a model of his design, which may or may not have made at least one tentative steam powered flight as it lifted, somewhat, off a wire guide. Numerous attempts to actually fly the large model (and an even larger model with a 20 foot wing span) were made between 1844 and 1847, but none of the attempts were successful. The Aerial Transit Company's publicist, Frederick Marriott, had a number of prints made in 1843 depicting the Aerial Steam Carriage over the pyramids in Egypt, in India, over London, England, and other places, which drew considerable interest from the press. Not all of the attention was approving, many in the press were extremely skeptical of the motives of the Aerial Transit Company, essentially raising questions of whether the group was a hoax or a fraud. This could have not been very welcome considering how seriously Henson and his group had taken the project and given that the model Aerial Steam Carriage had not performed as expected.

An Aerial Transit Company Print (cropped) Depicting The Aerial Steam Carriage "ARIEL" - 1843

The Aerial Transit Company's Aerial Steam Carriage Depicted In Flight Over Egypt

An Aerial Transit Company Pamphlet Regarding The Aerial Steam Carriage "ARIEL" - 1843

As can be seen in the illustrations below, quite detailed plans were drawn for the Aerial Steam Carriage and great consideration was given to a number of necessary elements, such as flight control and wing loading. The planned construction of the wings is particularly noteworthy for it set a pattern which was followed well into The Great War, WWI. The rectangular wings were curved, not flat, surfaces on the tops and bottoms, and were formed by wooden ribs attached to wooden spars (hollow cylinders which gradually tapered to the ends) and covered with fabric. They were braced, internally and externally, with wires. Henson's design was very influential and his detailed patent drawings contained a wealth of well-conceived and well-executed ideas for a flying machine. The Aerial Steam Carriage was also the first recognizably "modern" monoplane design, with a three-wheeled landing gear, and powered by two contra-rotating six-bladed propellers. While certain design elements, most notably the tail, were somewhat bird-like, the overall impression one has of the "ARIEL" is that it is a true flying machine, not an imitation of a bird. The Aerial Steam Carriage never took to the air, but it nonetheless registered firmly in the minds and imaginations of multitudes of people to became one of the strongest archetypal images of early aeronautics.

Detail Of Patent Drawing
Of The Aerial Steam Carriage - 1843

Patent Drawing Of The Aerial Steam Carriage - 1843

The Aerial Transit Company's Aerial Steam Carriage Depicted In Flight Over India,
Note The Launching Ramp On The Left And The Tower To Permit Passengers To Board.

Exaggerated View Of The Henson Aerial Steam Carriage

The Aerial Transit Company never built the large version of the Aerial Steam Carriage, perhaps because of the disappointing experiments with the model craft and, perhaps, because of the expense involved. Henson, Stringfellow, Marriott and Colombine parted company. In 1848 William Henson and his wife, Sarah, left their native England and moved to the U.S., settling in Newark, New Jersey, where he spent the last 40 years of his life. Henson had apparently ceased his aerial research for good, and never again took up the matter. Henson, along with his wife and children, and other members of their family are buried in Orange, New Jersey.