William Samuel Henson

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William Samuel Henson
Born(1812-05-03)3 May 1812
Died22 March 1888(1888-03-22) (aged 75)
Known forAerial Steam Carriage
Sarah Henson
(m. 1848)

William Samuel Henson (3 May 1812 – 22 March 1888) was a British-born pre-Wright brothers aviation pioneer, engineer and inventor. He is best known for his work on the aerial steam carriage alongside John Stringfellow.


Henson was born in Nottingham, England on 3 May 1812.[1][2] Henson was involved in lace-making in Chard[3] and he obtained a patent on improved lace-making machines in 1835. Henson is best known as an early pioneer in aviation but he patented many other inventions, some of which are in wide use today.[4]

In 1849 William Henson and his wife, Sarah, left England and moved to the United States, joining his father and settling in Newark, New Jersey. Henson never did any further aviation research while in the United States and worked as a machinist, civil engineer and inventor.[5][6] He had 7 children, only 4 of whom lived to adulthood.

Henson remained in the United States for the remainder of his life, except for a short period between 1864 and 1866 when he lived in Peru.[7] died on 22 March 1888 in Newark, New Jersey. He and most of his family were buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Orange, New Jersey.

Aeronautical inventions[edit]

Starting c. 1838, Henson became interested in aviation. In April 1841 he patented an improved lightweight steam engine, and with fellow lacemaking-engineer John Stringfellow in c. 1842 he designed a large passenger-carrying steam-powered monoplane, with a wing span of 150 feet, which he named the "Henson Aerial Steam Carriage". He received a patent on it in 1843 along with Stringfellow.

1843 engraving of the Aerial Steam Carriage

Henson, Stringfellow, Frederick Marriott, and D.E. Colombine, incorporated as the Aerial Transit Company in 1843 in England, with the intention of raising money to construct the flying machine. Henson built a scale model of his design, which made one tentative steam-powered "hop" as it lifted, or bounced, off its guide wire. Attempts were made to fly the small model, and a larger model with a 20-foot wing span, between 1844 and 1847, without success.

Henson grew discouraged, married and emigrated in 1849 to the United States, while Stringfellow continued to experiment with aviation.

Henson appeared as a character in a fictional newspaper story by Edgar Allan Poe, which recounted a supposed trans-Atlantic balloon trip, in which Henson was one of the passengers on the balloon.[8]

Henson and Stringfellow are frequently mentioned in books on the history of aviation.[9] The Royal Aeronautical Society holds annual "Henson-Stringfellow" lectures; as of 2008 they have held 52. A glacier in Antarctica is named after him due to his work in aviation (Henson Glacier: 64'06'S, 60'11'W[10]).

Henson and Stringfellow were referred to in the 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix.

Aerial Design[edit]

The Aerial's wings were rectangular, and were formed by wooden spars covered with fabric, and braced, internally and externally, with wires. The Aerial Steam Carriage was to be powered by two contra-rotating six-bladed propellers mounted in the rear in a push-type system. The design follows earlier "birdlike" gliders, and the ideas of George Cayley, and Henson corresponded with Cayley in an attempt to obtain funding after the efforts to obtain the support of Parliament and sell stock failed.[11] The Aerial Transit Company never built the largest version of the Aerial Steam Carriage because of the failed attempts with the medium-sized model. Henson, Stringfellow, Marriott and Colombine dissolved the company around 1848.


The Aerial Transit Company's publicist, Frederick Marriott, commissioned prints in 1843 depicting the Aerial Steam Carriage over the pyramids of Egypt, in India, and over London, England, and other places, which drew considerable interest from the public. The prints have appeared on several stamps of various countries. Marriott later became an aviation pioneer in California.

Other inventions and innovations[edit]

Henson obtained a number of patents in widely varying areas. Major patents include:

  • Lace-making decoration, 1835
  • Lightweight steam engines, 1841
  • Flying machine, 1843
  • T-handled safety razor, 1847

Henson invented the modern form of the razor, the 'T' shaped safety razor, and patented it in 1847: "the cutting blade of which is at right angles with the handle, and resembles somewhat the form of a common hoe."[12] While a major improvement on the previous form of safety razor, an additional improvement was needed to make safety razors common. In 1901, Gillette combined Henson's T-shaped safety razor with disposable blades, and produced the modern razor.[13]

Henson published a pamphlet on astronomy in 1871 suggesting that the Solar System formed from cold dust and gas, and discussed how it could condense into meteors and comets, and further condense into planets, moons and the Sun, in the process heating up. He also discusses how this would lead to the planets orbiting in the ecliptic and rotating in the same general plane.[14]

Henson created inventions in other areas as well. Among them were ice-making machines (1870), fabric waterproofing, and cistern-cleaning.[15] He patented and submitted a proposal for an improved low-recoil breech-loading cannon design to the US Navy in 1861; it was rejected as impractical.[16]

The Henson Aerial Steam Carriage[edit]

  • Small model, wingspan unknown
  • Medium model, wingspan 20 feet
  • Full-size aircraft, wingspan 150 feet (never built)


  • 3 May 1812 Birth in Nottingham, England
  • 1835 UK Patent #4405 on ornamental lace-making improvements ("William Henson of Chard, machinist" - could be William Samuel Henson's father, who was also an inventor)
  • 1840 UK Patent #6207 on making fabrics ("William Henson of Lambeth, engineer")
  • 1841, 1842, 1843 UK Patents on lightweight steam engine and flying machine[17] (#unknown and #9478) ("William S. Henson of Lambeth, engineer")
  • 17 July 1847 Patent on the T-handled safety razor
  • 1849 Emigration to the United States
  • 1850 US census in Newark, New Jersey as machinist
  • 2 March 1852 US Patent on improvement to knitting looms[18]
  • 5 November 1861 US Patent #33646 for "Improvement in Breech-loading Ordinance".[19]
  • 13 October 1868 US Patent #83060 for an improvement to a steam engine governor
  • circa 1869-1870: working in Peru in the mining industry[20]
  • 26 January 1869 US Patent #86264 for improvements to centrifugal screw pumps
  • 1870 US census in Newark, New Jersey as civil engineer, US patent #108816 on ice-making machine[21]
  • 1871 Publication of book on Astronomy; listed as a Master in the Newark Masons lodge
  • 14 July 1874 US Patent #152914 for ice-making improvements
  • 15 May 1883 US Patent #277486 for cleaning cisterns
  • 1888 Death in Newark, New Jersey

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Henson's personal journal, from Henson & Stringfellow, Aeronautical Pioneers, published 1943(?) Original preserved at the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences in the US
  2. ^ FreeReg, transcription of baptism record Some sources incorrectly say 1805
  3. ^ "William Samuel Henson". Royal Aeronautical Society. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  4. ^ Waits, Robert K. (2014). A Safety Razor Compendium: The Book. Lulu. p. 143. ISBN 9781312293533.
  5. ^ US census records
  6. ^ Aeronautics, Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, issue circa 1950
  7. ^ "Royal Aeronautical Society | Heritage | William Samuel Henson".
  8. ^ Edgar Allan Poe, Balloon Hoax, New York Sun, 1844
  9. ^ Google book search for William Samuel Henson
  10. ^ Henson Glacier)
  11. ^ "Henson and StringFellow", M. J. B. Davy, 1931
  12. ^ Origins of the Safety Razor
  13. ^ The Origins of Everyday Things (book)
  14. ^ The Medical Eclectic, 1874 issue, book review of The Great Facts of Modern Astronomy
  15. ^ Fly South Aviation History Archived 2008-01-18 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Henson family documents in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum archives and the Library of Congress AIAA collection
  17. ^ "Patents for inventions. Abridgments of specifications", Patent office, London, 1869
  18. ^ "Journal of the Franklin Institute", Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA 1852
  19. ^ "Report of the Commissioner of Patents, Volume 1", US Patent Office, 1863
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ "Commissioner of Patents Annual Report for the Year 1870", Washington, US Printing Office, 1872

External links[edit]