Stringfellow worked in Chard, Somerset, England as a maker of bobbins and carriages for the lace industry. 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. Despite their efforts, the designs were flawed with Stringfellow's ideas centred on monoplane and triplane models and Henson's ideas centred on an underpowered steam-powered vehicle. In 1848 Stringfellow achieved the first powered flight using an unmanned 10 ft wingspan steam-powered monoplane built in a disused lace factory in Chard, Somerset. Employing two contra-rotating propellers on the first attempt, made indoors, the machine flew ten feet before becoming destabilised, damaging the craft. The second attempt was more successful, the machine leaving a guide wire to fly freely, achieving some thirty yards of straight and level powered flight. Stringfellow was also a keen photographer in his spare time, having run his father's photography business in Chard, of which Stringfellow was one of the first to produce a wet print of an image in his studios. The studio in Chard, and his home in Crewkerne is where some of his flying machines were photographed.
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.
Stringfellow's first powered flight achievement was referenced in the movie The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). The character Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger), a German airplane designer, explains that it was a model airplane that made the first powered flight in 1848 and that though his own experience with airplane design is with building models, the principles are the same. His design for an airplane to be built from the scraps of their crashed plane will fly them out of the desert to safety.
Notes and references
- Harald Penrose, An Ancient Air: A Biography of John Stringfellow of Chard, The Victorian Aeronautical Pioneer (Shrewsbury, England: Airlife Publishing, Ltd., 1988), 183p., illus. ISBN 1-85310-047-1