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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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
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.
To Caress The Air
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.