Pioneer Trail

Augustus Moore Herring

When I scan my mental list of ‘first flight’ claimants – or even powered flight pioneers – the name Augustus Herring is something of an unknown quantity. That’s a massive oversight, as even a quick read of Herring’s Wikipedia entry proves.

Augustus Moore Herring (1867 – 1926) with his 1894 Lilienthal-type glider, featuring ‘fore-rudders’ for improved pitch control. (wikipedia)

Herring wasn’t just one of the USA’s most important aviation pioneers, he was arguably one of the key threads linking everyone else’s work and discoveries. He crops up in association with almost all of America’s more famous aeronauts: Chanute and Herring, Langley and Herring, the Wright Brothers and Herring, the Herring-Curtiss Company, Herring and Starling Burgess…

His name also fills the pages of Aeronautics magazine throughout the pioneer years as a highly respected opinion leader and frequently quoted expert.

First to fly?

Herring’s 2-surface glider (a modification of his 3-surface glider)in flight at Chanute’s Camp at Miller, Indiana, 1896. (1897 Western Society of Engineers via Dave Gierke Books)

More important than all that, however, was the fact that Herring designed a weight-shift airplane with a compressed air motor during 1896. He applied for patents for his design at the end of 1896, but the US Patents Office eventually rejected his application. 

Just frustratingly inconclusive as proof… Herring apparently landing his airplane with his feet, near St. Joseph’s, Mich. on October 22nd, 1898. (Meiller/Herring Collection via Dave Gierke Books)

That one patent could have changed history, but Herring built his machine anyway and took it to St. Josephs, Michigan, about 90 miles northeast of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

Having tested the aircraft on October 10th, 1898, he invited Octave Chanute to come and see it fly. But when his former employer came to witness a flight, Herring could not get airborne. 

However he was then reported to have made another successful flight on October 22nd, after Chanute had left, which was verified by at least two witnesses.

That alone makes him an extremely interesting figure in the history of flight. 

Well connected

Herring’s Lilienthal glider at Miller, Ind., in 1896. (1897 Aeronautical Annual via Dave Gierke Books)

Born in Covington, Georgia on August 3rd, 1867, then educated in Switzerland and Germany in the 1880s, Herring built his first man-carrying glider while still an engineering student in New York in 1893. 

It crashed on take-off. So he used his fluent German to study Otto Lilienthal’s research in detail, before building a Type 11 glider from Lilienthal’s original German patent. He went on to build several other gliders from Lilienthal’s designs and his own experiments. 

If the setting looks familiar – it should: Herring flies Chanute and Lamson’s triple-decker glider at Kill Devil Hills, N.C. during his 1902 visit. That’s almost certainly the Wrights’ assistant, Dan Tate, running the right wing. (Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University, via Dave Gierke Books)

Soon after, he was hired by Octave Chanute to build and test models, then by Samuel Pierpont Langley as research assistant, and then again by Chanute, when the two men designed and built a man-carrying biplane glider. 

He was certainly well connected to the Wrights too, possibly through their mutual acquaintance with Chanute. He even wrote to them on December 28th 1903 to suggest forming an aeroplane company together. 

A remarkable image of (L to R) Octave Chanute, Orville Wright, Wilbur Wright, Augustus Herring, George Spratt and Dan Tate together at Kill Devil Hills, N.C., during the Wrights’ 1902 camp. (Revue generale des sciences pures et appliquees, vol. 14, Nov. 1903, pg. 1136 via Davie Gierke Books)

The Brothers rejected his offer, but what really stands out is the fact the Herring even knew about their December 17th success within days of the Wrights returning to Dayton.

In most circles, it was either a secret or simply disbelieved. 

The Herring-Curtiss Company

Glenn Curtiss’ June Bug after winning the Scientific American Trophy and $25,000 for the first US flight over one kilometre, on July 4th, 1908. Herring leans on the wing behind AEA engineer ‘Doug’ McCurdy (in shirtsleeves) and Langley’s engineer Charles Manley (in white hat). (LoC P&P cph.3a45230)

In 1907, Herring was awarded a contract to build a machine for the first Army Trials of 1908. His machine crashed during testing while the other contractors, the Wrights, took their two-seat Military Flyer to Fort Myer with famously tragic results. 

Shortly afterward, Herring joined Glenn Curtiss to manufacture aircraft as the Herring-Curtiss Company. Despite producing the successful Gold Bug and Rheims Racer, Herring and Curtiss soon clashed and Herring left the company after a year. It would later be bankrupted by legal suits brought by the Wrights.    

As the Curtiss partnership ended, Herring took a commission from wealthy yacht designer and aviation entrepreneur Starling Burgess to build and fly a replica of his 1898 patent machine plus two new machines. 

Proof, control and repeatability

He’s believed to have successfully flown the replica design in April 1910 at Plum Island, Massachusetts – giving significant credence to his claim of achieving powered flight five years before the Wrights. 

It gives tantalising weight to the 1898 stories. Like many such claimants, however, issues around concrete proof, control and repeatability undermine Herring’s primacy. (Of all the things the Wright Brothers got right, having a camera and witnesses on hand turned out to be one of the most important.)

Photo of the Herring-Burgess #1 or ‘Flying Fish’, taken at Marblehead, Mass. in 1910. Note the stabilising ‘jib sails’ on top of the wings. (Marblehead Historical Commission via Dave Gierke Books)

Herring left the Burgess Company too, after a year, once again over personality clashes – this time with another partner, Greely S. Curtis.

He then spent the rest of his life in a bitter and long-running legal battle with Glenn Curtiss over patents and intellectual property. 

A central role

Later in life, and locked in legal battles; Augustus Herring photographed in 1924. (Meiller/Herring Collection via Dave Gierke Books)

The suit would eventually be resolved in Herring’s favour in 1930. By then, in a final victory of justice over litigation, both men were dead and their widows settled the matter for a tenth of the original suit. The whole episode only stands as another profound example of courtroom fights holding back the development of aviation in America while, unfettered, European aviators surged ahead.    

Whatever else happened, Herring must have a been a somewhat difficult man. Alden Hatch, in his 1942 biography of Glenn Curtiss, describes Herring as an ‘eccentric individual’ and then ‘a fish of ill-omen’…

Regardless, Herring’s central role in early powered aviation can’t be ignored. He has certainly been treated unfairly by history and the more successful aviators who wrote it.

Until now.

To Caress The Air

Front cover for Book One of C. David Gierke’s two volume retelling of August Herring’s extraordinary life in aviation. (© Dave Gierke Books)

C. David Gierke has written an intriguing Herring biography, with a view to restoring his place in the aviation firmament, entitled To Caress The Air. 

Gierke has combined over 40 years of personal research, the records of other researchers and unique access to Herring family archives with original trial records from that bitter dispute with Curtiss, to craft a fictionalised account of events.

Building on the ‘hard facts’ of history and court transcripts, he has added imagined conversations to create a more readable narrative of the man’s life and career.

As he says, it is increasingly clear that Herring was ‘purposefully snubbed’ by contemporary historians. 

I’ve received some sample chapters and I’ll post a more in-depth review of the book here soon. But if you can’t wait, Gierke’s two-volume To Caress The Air is available now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, etc. 

Visit Dave Gierke Books for more info and links to your preferred reseller.

17 thoughts on “Pioneer Trail

  1. The lack of undeniable evidence that another party beat them to the punch will, I believe, keep the Wrights atop the list of first fliers forever. It’s kind of ironic that a photograph is the primary basis of their claim, because a photo would be worthless for that purpose today. “Photoshop!”

    The lawsuits which crippled early American aviation development are the one thing which seems to be unchanged. Its ironic, sad, and embarrassing that it took a world war for us to set those things aside.

    1. For all the times we’ve seen the famous photo of Wilbur sending Orville off on that first flight at Kitty Hawk, I wonder how many people have stopped and thought about the deliberation behind it.
      No-one whipped out their iPhone in those days. Along with all the work of getting the Flyer and its launch track ready, they prepared glass plates, carried a heavy camera and tripod to the site, chose a spot, set them up and, finally, clearly instructed John Daniels to squeeze the shutter bulb when he saw the machine lift off. I’m not sure how or when the Wrights realized that unequivocal proof was an essential criterion, but they were all over it like white on rice.
      It provided protection while they maintained secrecy for their ongoing experiments but, almost inevitably, that mindset led them down a dark path.
      Orville even refused to design tractor airplane until after 1914, because it was afraid that would weaken his company’s patent position.
      It’s important (and, you’re right, embarrassing) to remember that it took the national emergency of a world war for the federal government to order all parties to stop bickering and get on with developing airplanes.

      1. Deliberation—and a lot of luck! As you mentioned, photography in that era was cumbersome at best. The state of the art was almost as primitive for cameras as it was for aircraft.

        Even today with modern equipment, 99% of my photos are clear “fails”. Just the sheer luck of capturing the essential moment, in focus, is almost an act of divine providence.

      2. LOL – but good point. Considering the hardware, it is an extraordinarily evocative, active, candid photo.
        No-one ever seems to mention this, but the secret to 99.9% of photos is planning/deliberation. Something else the Wrights were masters of. If they’d had iPhones in 1903, we’d probably have a timeless image of Daniels’ right shoe (out of focus).

  2. Another brilliant post mate – thanks so much. I’ll put a link to that up on Facebook tonight. I had no idea a book had been written. I will grab a couple of copies.




    1. Thank goodness, indeed! And ‘blurred’ seems like a polite description! Fascinating as the history of early flight is in itself, the subject of how history gets controlled, recorded and propagated is worthy of a thesis! The shameful debacle concerning the Wright brothers, Langley’s Aerodrome, Glenn Curtiss’ alteration of it and the Smithsonian Institution is a real eye-opener.

  3. Herring is an interesting subject but the idea of a “Biographical Novel” rings alarm bells for me. How much of it will be historical fact and how much will be the author’s imagination? How can we tell which is which, and how can we judge whether the “imagined conversations” are a realistic depiction of what the people involved might actually have said? I fear that this blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction is always likely to put the needs of a satisfying narrative ahead of any concerns for historical accuracy.

    1. Hi Andrew. Thanks for your comments. While I can’t really answer them right now, I think they’re definitely valid and I’ll keep them in mind when I write my review.

  4. Early aviation, early photography….everything I love! A fascinating article (as usual!) and yes, America’s pre-occupation with litigation seems little changed! Money as ever, decides and controls whose ideas progress and who remains in the background, out of focus!

  5. Another point of course is the one about controlling how history portrays such events. A more modern example is: Who discovered the wreck of the Titanic? It certainly was NOT Bob Ballard! But that is not the way history and Ballard himself tell it to the world!

    1. Yes, well, I have some background in advertising and communications, so I know how that one works. Mostly it’s money, whether you’re promoting a version of events or baby powder.
      Of course, truth isn’t always the winner in those circumstances, even if the motives behind the money change from case to case. Wright, Curtiss, Langley/Smithsonian are all culpable one way or another.
      The Titanic discovery is a good parallel too. In that case it’s such a clear loss too. The real story behind the discovery is even better than Woods Hole/National Geographic version – worthy of a Tom Clancy novel. (Here’s a brief summary, for anyone who isn’t across the US Navy’s role.)

      1. Indeed! Now, if its a MARITIME cover-up/ hijacking of the truth that you want, may I point you in this direction?

        There is a Bob Ballard connection in that story too, only back then (1993) he was in cahoots with the BRITISH Government to try to add his “expert” opinion that the ship wasn’t carrying live munitions (it WAS) and even if it was, they didn’t explode!

      2. I’m just going to stop on the brink of this rabbit hole…! The Lusitania is a great intersection between propaganda, secrets and conspiracy. In those days, ocean liners were the airliners (there’s an etymological connection for you!), and aviation is full of conspiracy theories about what crashed airliners were carrying and for whom.
        Ships at the bottom of the sea are a lot easier to find than historical truth.

  6. LOL! I don’t blame you! It isn’t a rabbit hole, it is a minefield! Trust me, I have been navigating that particular one for twenty years!

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