1887. Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, New Jersey). The Wright brothers are still five years from opening their bicycle business—and won’t even begin thinking about flight for another decade—when Augustus Herring, an engineering student with experience building model aeroplanes, proposes as his college thesis topic: The Flying Machine as a Mechanical Engineering Problem. The head of the school’s faculty summarily rejects the topic as “fanciful.” Herring quits the school—but not his fascination with aeronautics.
Augustus Moore Herring was an early believer in the possibility of powered flight, building (and crashing) his first full-sized glider in 1893. He went on to study the efforts of German glider expert Otto Lilienthal, eventually constructing a monoplane apparatus similar in design to the hang gliders of today, which Herring steered by shifting his body weight relative to the wing. He was employed successively by aviation pioneers Octave Chanute and Samuel Pierpont Langley, the latter serving at the time as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1896 Herring applied for a patent on a heavier-than-air, motor-powered flying machine, but his application was denied. He and Chanute were jointly granted a British patent in 1897 for a tri-wing powered glider, but the device lacked a reliable means of lateral stability. In 1898 Herring applied for a patent on a flying machine that was powered, though for just a few seconds at a time, by compressed air. That design was rejected by the U.S. Patent Office as “incapable of practical use.” Herring claimed at the time to have made brief flights with his machine, but upon summoning Chanute to watch he was unable to replicate them.
Chanute thereafter became a mentor to the Wright brothers, and when they invited him to Kitty Hawk in the autumn of 1902 he brought Herring along. Seeking a means of lateral stability other than weight-shifting, Chanute and Herring tested their current glider at the Wrights’ camp. Herring would later say the Wrights took their best ideas from him. Yet, while Chanute-Herring machines featured adjustable wings, they lacked the Wrights’ breakthrough “wing warping” design for maintaining lateral stability.
Glenn Curtiss and Lieutenant Tom Selfridge, members of Alexander Graham Bell’s “Aerial Experiment Association,” met Herring in early 1908, at which time, so he later explained, he furnished them with information “relative to curvature and method[s] of forming the sustaining surfaces [i.e., wings], the method of calculating and building the screw propellers, etc.” Given the rapidity with which the AEA developed working wings, that claim is in fact plausible. Lieutenant Selfridge wrote to Herring, taking him up on an offer to provide suggestions during construction of one of the Association’s first machines.
Later in 1908, following a ten-year hiatus in which he had researched and written extensively about aeroplanes but built nothing of his own, Herring undertook to produce a full-scale, working flying machine for the U.S. Government. Contemporaneous with the Wrights’ bid of $25,000 as the price for delivering a military aeroplane, Herring bid $20,000—and promised he would actually fly his machine from New York to Washington for acceptance tests. To demonstrate his sincerity, he provided the required cashier’s check deposit of $2,000, representing 10% of his bid.
On September 17, 1908, the first aviation fatality in history occurred at the Fort Myer demonstration grounds (near present-day Reagan National Airport) when Orville Wright crashed during War Department acceptance tests, killing his passenger, Lieutenant Selfridge. The following month Herring made “technical delivery” of his own flying machine, carrying two suitcases full of parts to Fort Myer and assembling what he explained was the center portion of the aeroplane. When the Army granted the Wrights a nine-month extension after the fatal crash, Herring sought and obtained a like extension.
At the time, Glenn Curtiss was contemplating entering the aeroplane manufacturing business in competition with the Wrights. His design used ailerons, rather than “wing warping,” but he realized that the Wright patent created an issue for him. Although Herring had never produced a functioning powered machine (and never would, as it turned out), he persuaded Curtiss he was capable of doing so, and that his ideas, inventions, and existing patents were extremely valuable. In January 1909 the two men formed the Herring-Curtiss Company. Herring, in exchange for his contributions (virtually none of which was in cash), became the majority shareholder. Curtiss, who did contribute significant cash, as well as his engine manufacturing facility, accepted a minority interest.
It’s easy enough to scoff now at the gullibility of Curtiss, but Herring was not an obvious crank. His resume was long and impressive: he had associated with aeronautical giants Langley and Chanute, and he offered Curtiss the prospect of access to inside knowledge regarding exactly what the Wrights had done in their 1902 experiments. Herring could speak persuasively of past flying accomplishments and of valuable patents that predated the patent claimed by the Wrights, including a revolutionary gyroscope system that promised a permanent and unbeatable solution to the problem of stabilizing an aeroplane.
Within a year Herring and Curtiss had, with good reason on both sides, grown mutually mistrustful. A series of corporate maneuvers designed to wrest control from each other culminated in an involuntary bankruptcy proceeding orchestrated by Curtiss, who was ultimately able to separate Herring from the manufacturing business. Herring went on to a brief, unhappy association with Starling Burgess in the design and manufacture of aeroplanes. Curtiss’s business prospered, even as he continued to battle the Wrights.
Although the Herring-Curtiss bankruptcy was finally adjudicated in favor of Curtiss, Herring seized on a failure by company attorney Monroe Wheeler to complete a formal dissolution of the corporation. In 1916, as soon as an injunction against voting his stock expired, Herring sued Curtiss and the other former directors for five million dollars, alleging that they had defrauded him of his interest in the company and claiming entitlement to 69% of the stock of various successor Curtiss companies, which by then were extremely valuable.
When the trial judge ruled against him in 1923, Herring filed an appeal, but by that time he had been partially paralyzed by a series of strokes. He spent his last years in a dingy Brooklyn apartment, alone and sick, occasionally interviewed by sympathetic journalists who wrote of him as “the forgotten leader in aviation.” Herring died in 1926 at the age of 58, still dreaming of what might be—and of what might have been.
Two years after Herring’s death, the appellate court reversed the trial court decision and found that Curtiss and the other directors had indeed acted wrongfully in 1909-1910, most notably when they orchestrated the sham sale of three aeroplanes to Charles Hamilton—a transaction that led to Eugene Ely’s finding a place on the Curtiss team. Vindication came too late for Herring to enjoy, but his legal victory was far from symbolic. Curtiss was ordered to testify in a subsequent proceeding to determine what amount would be paid to Herring’s heirs. In mid-July 1930, still entangled in the litigation, Curtiss was convalescing from an emergency appendectomy when he suffered a pulmonary embolism and died suddenly at the age of 52. His widow, unwilling to continue fighting the Herring heirs, settled out of court. In the middle of the Great Depression, they received an amount that may well have reached as much as half a million dollars.
The accompanying image, and more information about the inventions of Herring and Chanute, can be found at http://www.flyingmachines.org/chan.html