A Steampunk Airplane from the 1800s

Drawing of a Steam Powered Aircraft Built in the 1840s
Drawing of a Steam Powered Aircraft Built in the 1840s | Source

This article is about an early attempt at powered flight from the 1840s which seems to have come close to succeeding. Had the machine actually flown, it would have changed the course of human history.

An Artist's Conception of the Steam Powered Airplane, the "Arial" in Flight. This drawing was published in newspapers of the time to solicit investors in the scheme.
An Artist's Conception of the Steam Powered Airplane, the "Arial" in Flight. This drawing was published in newspapers of the time to solicit investors in the scheme.

Humans have always dreamed of flying. Ancient legends such as the story of Icarus tell of men who achieved this dream by attaching artificial wings to their bodies and soaring into the sky using the strength of their own arms, but these were only stories and for most of human history mankind remained firmly rooted to the ground.

In ancient China, soldiers were carried aloft using giant kites where they acted as forward observers for their army. And in the late 1700s, in France, several brave air pioneers went up in hot air balloons (the first test pilot was actually a rooster, followed by humans). But the dream of controlled and sustained flight that would allow humans to soar through the air eluded the inventors.

Leonardo da Vinci made drawings of a proposed human powered machine that looks a lot like a modern glider, except that the pilot was supposed to provide the lifting force by pulling on levers, that would cause the mechanical wings to flap. Other inventors also came up with designs for human powered airplanes, and some even built prototypes. In some cases, the inventors were killed while test-flying their contraption.

All of these early attempts at flight tried to imitate birds: they had flapping wings rather than fixed wings like modern airplanes. The problem with all of these early designs is that even when the aircraft was aerodynamically capable of flight, the pilot could simply not provide enough power to achieve flight. The aircraft was simply too heavy relative to the amount of power that the human engine was able to produce. Another problem was that most inventors thought that they could solve the problem of flight by essentially building a mechanical bird, which in fact was the wrong approach entirely.


The Wright Brothers's Airplane - 1908

William Henson, the inventor of the steam powered airplane.
William Henson, the inventor of the steam powered airplane.

The problem of how to achieve powered flight was not solved until 1903 by the Wright Brothers, who flew a rickety airplane powered by a gas engine at Kitty Hawk. The airplane only flew a few feet off the ground, and it was able to get airborne and stay aloft in large part because of a strong wind which gave the plane extra lift - but the problem had been solved. Within 11 years, planes had been fully weaponised: bombers carrying heavy payloads of bombs were conducting long range bombing raids. Within about forty years of the first flight, passenger planes were regularly crossing the Atlantic.

The Wright Brothers certainly deserve the credit for finally fulfilling mankind's dream of flight. But it may come as a surprise to learn just how close the British came to inventing powered manned flight in 1843! Recently I was browsing through the April 8, 1843 edition of L'Illustration, a French magazine when I came across a fascinating article about an inventor named William Henson who had built a steam powered airplane that he planned to use to transport people and cargo.

Henson was granted a patent for a "flying steam carriage" and solicited investors to finance his scheme. Newspaper articles of the time showed the planned steam carriage in flight over major landmarks, and such was the hype that many believed that an era of steam powered flight was close at hand.

The article goes into detail about the design of the Mr. Henson's airplane and what struck me is how close Mr. Henson came to solving the problem of flight. His design anticipated many elements of modern aircraft: fixed wings to provide lift, a motor (instead of human power), propellers, a rudder to steer the plane, a tail to hold the plane stead, landing gear, and a passenger and cargo cabin (essentially a fuselage) suspended underneath the wings. Henson also seems to have understood that if the plane was going to be able to fly, the engine, fuel and cargo had to be light enough relative to the surface area of the wings.


A schematic drawing of the 1843 Steampunk Airplane.
A schematic drawing of the 1843 Steampunk Airplane.
The inventor accurately predicted that airplanes would one day cross the English channel bringing people and goods from England to France. Here the steam powered airplane is pictured in flight over Calais, on the English Channel.
The inventor accurately predicted that airplanes would one day cross the English channel bringing people and goods from England to France. Here the steam powered airplane is pictured in flight over Calais, on the English Channel.

Below is my translation of the 1843 magazine article that describes Mr. Henson's flying machine and how it was supposed to work:

  • Building a steam powered machine that can be directed by its driver and carry people and passengers hundreds of meters above the ground, is the mechanical problem that M. Henson has set out to solve. Will he be successful? It is still unclear, but the methods he is employing to achieve this goal are entirely different from those that have been tried until now and it is hoped that his efforts will be rewarded with success.
  • The reader may visualize a large wooden frame 50 meters long and 10 meters wide, solid but light, and covered in silk or cloth, serving as wings, although does not have any joints or moving parts, and jutting into the atmosphere one of its sides higher than the other. There is a tail attached to the middle of the lower side, and below the tail there is a rudder.
  • Finally, suspended below the chassis, is the cabin which is designed to transport goods and passengers, and a steam engine as powerful as it is small and light, which drives two fan-like wheels similar to the blades of a windmill, 7 meters in diamater, located underneath the chassis.
  • Such a machine, together with its coal, water and cargo will weigh no more than 1,500 kilograms. As its surface is approximately 1,500 square meters, it occupies only 52 square centimeters for 170 grams of weight and it is therefore lighter than many birds.
  • Despite its light weight, the machine could not sustain itself in the air for long; it would descend gradually to the ground. But it should be noted that the front part is slightly elevated. In this position the lower surface of the machine is is presented to the layers of air through which it passes, and these layers of resistance through which it passes prevent it from falling. The machine is also kept aloft by its speed.
  • But, it must be asked - what if the speed decreased? How does one get enough speed? All attempts so far have failed because there was no machine which was both light enough and enough powerful to raise its own weight into the air with the necessary speed. This double difficulty, Henson claims to have defeated: 1) by the invention of a new steam engine as powerful as light, and 2) by a very singular process that requires special explanation.
  • Until now, the inventors of various flying machines believed that their machine would be powerful enough to move itself and to get alfot and stay in the air. Henson believes that this error has prevented their efforts from succeeding. Turning to nature for a solution, Henson's machine is launched into the air from the upper end of a downward slope. As it descends, it gains the speed necessary to enable it to sustain itself in flight during the remainder of his journey. Resistance from the air gradually slows its speed, and the steam engine has no other purpose than to continually repair the loss of speed. How does a bird does take flight from the top of a tree or a rock? First it plunges into the air to gain some speed. Once in movement, the bird has little work to do to climb higher and increase the speed of travel. However the same bird rises from the ground to the to the top of a rock or tree only with great difficulty. This is a necessary consequence of a well known mechanical axiom: once in motion, a body continues to move, if its force equals that of the obstacles it encounters. Once Mr. Henson's machine has been launched into the air, its steam engine will give it a force equal to the obstacles that it must overcome.
  • You must be wondering, we know, whether Mr. Henson's steam engine is sufficient to achieve this result.
  • This question raises two others, namely: what is the power of this machine, and what obstacles does it have to overcome? It is easier to answer the first of these questions than the second. The power of a steam engine depends primarily on the amount of steam produced by the generator, yet according to the experiments, the machine of Mr. Henson will have a force equal to 20 horses. The generator and condenser are also ingenious and novel: the first consists of fifty truncated and inverted copper cones , arranged above and around the furnace; the capacitor is formed of a number small pipes exposed to the air stream produced by the stroke of the machine. Finally the total weight of the machine, with the water needed to maintain it, does not exceed 600 pounds.
  • What resistance will meet this machine does it? Will she be strong enough to triumph? The experiment will be made soon to answer that last question.

The article from 1843 ends on a hopeful note saying that we would soon know whether William Henson's invention worked. Presumably its maiden flight was supposed to occur in the near future.

Unfortunately, the experiment failed. Although William Henson had put much thought into developing a light weight but powerful engine, the engine was not powerful enough to achieve liftoff and his investors refused to fund more experiments. Had he succeeded one can only imagine how weird and wonderful our history would have turned out - a steampunk alternate universe with steam powered airplanes criss crossing the the skies of a Victorian era world.


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Comments 5 comments

Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 5 years ago from Eden

Cool! I didn't know about this interestng bit of history. I wonder if this was the inspiration for John Hartford's song Steam Powered Aeroplane: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdgLtzWJhbU


quotations profile image

quotations 5 years ago from Canada Author

@Joyus Crynoid - thanks for the youtube link - I had not heard that song before. I enjoyed listening to it.


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 5 years ago from Southeast Michigan

How is it that I've never heard of this before!? I'll have to bookmark this so I can study it when I have time.

Thanks so much for this hub: rated up and useful.


RussellLHuey profile image

RussellLHuey 5 years ago

Fascinating article, quotations. Thanks for sharing.


lilia 4 years ago

those are good quotation. thanks for telling me.

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