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British Industrial History

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William Samuel Henson

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Henson and Stringfellow plane.

William Samuel Henson (1812-1888), also known as "Mad-man" Henson, was a pre-Wright brothers aviation engineer and inventor.

1812 May 3rd. Born in Nottingham (some sources say 1805 and in Chard, Somerset), a centre of lace-making.

1835 Patent for improvements in making ornamented bobbin net lace. William Samuel Henson of Chard, machinist.[1]

c1838, Henson became interested in aviation.

1841 April. Patented an improved light-weight steam engine, and with fellow lace making engineer John Stringfellow

1842 Patent. '...granted to William Samuel Henson, of New City Chambers, in the city of London, engineer, for "certain improvements in locomotive apparatus, and machinery in conveying letters, goods, and passengers from place to place through the air, part of which improvements are applicable to locomotive and other machinery to be used on water or on land;"...'[2]

c1842 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.

Henson, Stringfellow, Frederick Marriott, and D. E. Colombine, incorporated as the Aerial Transit Co 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 to the United States, while Stringfellow continued to experiment with aviation.

The Aerial Transit Company's publicist, Frederick Marriott, commissioned prints in 1843 depicting the Aerial Steam Carriage over the pyramids in Egypt, in India, and over London, and other places, which drew considerable interest from the public.

The wings of their plane 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 Cayley. 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.

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

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

Henson invented the modern form of the razor, the 'T' shaped safety razor, and patented it in 1847. 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.

Published a pamphlet on Astronomy in 1871 suggested that the solar system formed from cold dust and gas, and discussed how the it could condense into meteors and comets, and further condense into planets, moons and the sun, in the process heating up. He created inventions in other areas as well. Among them were ice-making machines, fabric waterproofing, cistern-cleaning, and razors He submitted a proposal for a breech-loading cannon design to the US Navy; it was rejected as impractical.

1848 March 4th. Married in London to Sarah Ann Jones

1849 William Henson and his wife, Sarah, left England and moved to the United States, and lived 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.

Henson died in 1888. He and his family were buried in East Orange, New Jersey.

Much information about Henson's life and work, and in particular his involvement with John Stringfellow, can be found in a biography of Stringfellow written by Harald Penrose[3]


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser - Thursday 05 November 1835
  2. The London Gazette Publication date:19 November 1842 Issue:20164 Page:3295
  3. 'An Ancient Air' by Harald Penrose, Airlife Publishing Ltd, 2000. First published 1988