Augustus Herring & the Wright Brothers


I reviewed your reproductions of the articles on Augustus Moore Herring with interest, but I could find no conclusive evidence that he flew a powered aircraft prior to the Wright brothers. As discussed in a previous article about who was first to fly, Herring built and flew several glider designs during the late 1890s.

Augustus Herring flying his glider with a compressed air engine
Augustus Herring flying his glider with a compressed air engine

One of Herring's craft happened to have a small compressed air engine aboard, but calling the plane "powered" is rather generous. Herring's engine was underpowered and far too weak to provide the thrust necessary to maintain flight. Furthermore, Herring's plane lacked a truly functional control system needed to steer a plane in flight. For these reasons, most historians have discounted any claims that Herring was the first to fly, a claim which Herring never made himself, as far as we can tell.

You also ask whether Herring and the Wrights knew of each other. I suspect they probably did, but not necessarily because they both happened to be bicycle makers from Ohio. Herring worked very closely with a well known aviator named Octave Chanute. In fact, most of Herring's machines were copies of those he had worked on with Chanute, which themselves had been inspired by a famous German glider builder named Otto Lilienthal.

Octave Chanute and views of the Chanute-Herring Glider
Octave Chanute and views of the Chanute-Herring Glider

Chanute was more than an experimenter, and he is best known today for his efforts to communicate with other major figures in aeronautics and document their work. He researched this field extensively from 1875 through the early 1900s, and his findings were collected in the landmark 1894 book Progress in Flying Machines. The Wright brothers avidly read this book, and it is generally believed to have been one of their primary inspirations to start experimenting with flight themselves. The Wrights also contacted Chanute and struck up a close friendship with him that lasted for many years. Since Herring worked for Chanute, it is likely that he and the Wrights were aware of each other through this mutual relationship.

Photo of the Wright brothers 1901 glider taken by Octave Chanute during a visit
Photo of the Wright brothers 1901 glider taken by Octave Chanute during a visit

Your comments also seem to imply that perhaps the Wrights borrowed or stole some of Herring's ideas in building the Wright Flyer. However, this conjecture seems very unlikely. Many of Chanute's ideas directly inspired both Herring and the Wrights, but there is no evidence that Herring and the Wrights had any direct involvement with each other. Though Herring happened to experiment with a "powered" glider, his work paled in comparison to that of Chanute and the Wrights, and he had no real impact on the course of aeronautics outside of his work with Octave Chanute. What set the Wrights apart was their introduction of lightweight internal combustion engines and the development of coordinated turns using a rudder and wing warping. These two innovations were the keys to making the powered airplane a practical flying machine.
- answer by Jeff Scott, 19 December 2004

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