Starting c. 1838, William Samuel 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, which he named the Henson Ariel Steam Carriage. Between 1844 and 1847 Henson and Stringfellow made a series of attempts to fly their Ariel models but they simply did not fly. In 1848 Henson left the enterprise and moved with his wife and family to the U.S., leaving Stringfellow to pursue aeronautical research on his own.
The first result of Stringfellow’s efforts was the 1848 machine, which was powered by two contra-rotating propellers driven by one of Stringfellow’s powerful and lightweight steam engines. The first attempt to fly the 10 foot wing span machine took place indoors, and a lack of proper balance resulted in a failure and damage to the machine. The second attempt was a rather wonderful success, for the flying machine left a guide wire and flew straight and true for about 30 feet.
In 1889, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim started the construction of his “flying machine” which was a 12 m long craft with a 34 m wingspan that weighed 3.5 tons, powered by two lightweight naphtha-fired 360 horsepower steam engines driving two 17 ft 10 in diameter laminated pine propellers. In 1894, the machine lifted and was prevented from rising by the outriggers. During its test run, all the outriggers were engaged, showing that it had developed enough lift to take off, but in so doing, it pulled up the track; the tethered “flight” was aborted in time to prevent disaster. Maxim subsequently abandoned work on it but put his experience to work on fairground rides. He subsequently noted that a feasible flying machine would need better power-to-weight engines, such as a petrol combustion engine.
At the close of the 19th century, Samuel Langley built his powered flying machine “Aerodrome”. Langley coined the word “Aerodrome” and applied it to a series of engine driven unmanned and manned tandem wing aircraft that were built under his supervision by Smithsonian staff in the 1890s and early 1900s. The term is derived from Greek words meaning “air runner”.
After a series of unsuccessful tests beginning in 1894, Langley’s unmanned steam-driven model “number 5” made a successful 90-second flight of over half a mile at about 25 miles (40 km) an hour at a height of 80 feet (24 m) to 100 feet (30 m) on May 6, 1896. In November model “number six” flew almost 1 mile (1.6 km). Both aircraft were launched by catapult from a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia, south of Washington, D.C.