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British Industrial History

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John Stringfellow

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Henson and Stringfellow plane.

John Stringfellow (1799-1883) was born in Sheffield and is known for his work on the Aerial Steam Carriage with William Samuel Henson.

He was born in Attercliffe, near Sheffield, on 6 December 1799, the son of William Stringfellow, cutler, and his wife, Martha.

At an early age Stringfellow was apprenticed to the lace trade in Nottingham, but about 1820 moved to Chard in Somerset, a centre of lace making as a maker of bobbins and carriages for the lace industry. He was so successful that within a few years he had established his own business as a manufacturer of bobbins and bobbin carriages.

On 24 February 1827 Stringfellow married Hannah Keetch, said to have been born in Newfoundland. Their surviving family consisted of six sons and four daughters.

In 1831-2 he launched hot-air balloons at local festivals, one of which flew a distance of more than 4 miles

His goal was powered flight with fixed-wing aeroplanes and the idea was developed in discussions with another manufacturer of lace-making machinery who had moved to Chard in the late 1830s, William Samuel Henson (1812–1888). They were inspired by the aeronautical writings and experiments of George Cayley.

Together with Henson, he had ambitions of creating an international company, the Aerial Transit Company, with designs showing aeroplane travel in exotic locations like Egypt and China.

Henson and Stringfellow began testing various wing forms in model gliders, and by 1840 had evolved their projected full-size passenger-carrying flying machine or ‘aerial steam carriage’, which Henson patented in April 1843.

A 20 foot wingspan model powered by a steam engine, of Henson origin but much improved by Stringfellow, was tested in 1845 but could not sustain itself in the air. Henson then abandoned his aeronautical ambitions altogether.

Stringfellow persevered on his own, however, and built another 10 foot model powered by a smaller steam engine of his own design. More than one witness recalled that it gained height steadily after being launched on several occasions in 1848, and Stringfellow himself certainly considered that he had demonstrated with it the possibility of powered flight.

Stringfellow then built a number of other model aeroplanes and engines before entering a model steam-powered triplane and a model steam engine in the aeronautical exhibition at Crystal Palace in June 1868. His steam engine was awarded a prize of £100 by the Royal Aeronautical Society for having the greatest power-to-weight ratio of all the fifteen engines exhibited.

Despite their efforts, the designs were flawed with Stringfellow's ideas centred around monoplane and triplane models and Henson's ideas centred around an underpowered steam-powered vehicle. The two achieved popular attention, nonetheless, as Stringfellow did achieve the first powered flight, in 1848, in a disused lace factory in Chard, with a model 10 foot steam-driven flying machine.

A bronze model of that first primitive aircraft stands in Fore Street in Chard. The town's museum has a unique exhibition of flight before the advent of the internal combustion engine and before the manned powered flight made famous by the Wright Brothers. Stringfellow also invented and patented compact electric batteries, which were used in early medical treatment. Stringfellow's work was featured in an exhibition in 1868 at The Crystal Palace in London

In the late 1850s Stringfellow took up the new art of photography, becoming so proficient that he advertised himself as a professional portrait photographer, with a studio in Chard High Street.

He was elected a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1868, and with his prize money erected a building 70 feet long in which to continue his experiments, but his sight began to fail and he was unable to make any further progress.

He patented in 1870 a wheeled apparatus for affording protection from bullets and other missiles, but did not succeed in selling it to any of Europe's warring armies.

Stringfellow died in High Street, Chard, on 13 December 1883.

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