Augustus Herring in 1894. Source of Image: Wikimedia Commons ( commons.wikimedia.org )
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Michigan History Magazine.
When Augustus Herring graduated from high school, he told his father, “I want to study engineering, so I may design an aeroplane.” It was a curious statement. It was 1884, and no airplane had ever been built. Man had flown balloons, but the idea of a motorized, controllable “flying machine” was unknown.
Born in Georgia in 1867, Augustus Herring followed his dream and became one of this country’s aviation pioneers. After going to college to become an engineer, Herring devoted himself to the study of aeronautics.
Herring worked with other aviation pioneers, especially in experimenting with gliders. Finally, he put a gasoline-powered engine on a two-winged glider that had a wingspan of nineteen feet. The 2.5-horsepower engine (smaller than most of today’s lawnmower engines) gave the “pilot” power for about fifteen seconds In October 1898, Herring “flew” this contraption on the Lake Michigan beach at St. Joseph, Michigan. On a second flight, according to one eyewitness, the airplane stayed in the air for ten seconds and went seventy-three feet.
Herring had problems. His airplane was difficult to control, and he needed a lighter-weight engine to keep the plane flying longer, but none existed. Finally, the photographer who had been on the beach that day failed to capture Herring’s plane in the air. There was no visual proof that he had flown.
A fire in his St. Joseph workshop and a shortage of money contributed to Herring losing interest in flying. Instead, he built gasoline-powered bicycles before moving to New York in 1904. By that time, Orville and Wilbur Wright had successfully powered their flying machine in a controlled flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They were first to achieve controlled flight.
Historians have mixed reviews for Herring. One labeled his work as “insignificant,” while another said, “one cannot deny that Herring flew or was very close to having flown.” As for Augustus Herring, he never claimed to be the first to fly. He knew his engine-powered glider was not a practical airplane. But he argued that his work proved that powered flight was “solvable.” That claim is undisputed.