Today, two early not-quite-airplanes. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The name Maxim keeps coming
at you when you study the history of technology.
Hudson and Hiram Maxim were actually two people --
brothers born in Maine in 1840 and 1853. The
younger brother, Hudson, developed military
explosives. Older brother Hiram was best known for
his machine gun, but he invented all kinds of
things -- explosives included. He worked for much
of his life in England, and he was knighted for his
Now we find an article in the 1918 Journal of
the Society of Automotive Engineers. It begins
with two startling sentences:
The first power[ed] flight of an Airplane was
not, as many suppose, that made by Ader in France
in 1897. [It was made in] the large steam-powered
machine designed and built by Sir Hiram Maxim.
Well, how many people know about Ader's and Maxim's
airplanes today? Yet both airplanes were built, and
both got off the ground.
The French builder, Clément Ader, made two
wild bat-winged machines, powered by steam engines.
In 1890, the first one got a few inches into the
air and skimmed the ground for fifty yards. But it
had a design flaw that didn't show up in that
minimal flight. Ader hadn't provided adequate
control. Still, he thought he'd succeeded and
immediately began a larger version. When he flew it
in 1897, it barely got off the ground and then
Maxim invested £20,000 in building a huge,
hundred-foot-wingspan, multi-winged machine, in
England. It was powered by two lightweight
180-horsepower steam engines that he'd designed for
it. Maxim began flight tests in 1894. On the third
try the plane was powered up to forty miles per
hour, left its track, flew two hundred feet, and
crashed. After that, Maxim lost interest in flying.
He went on to other inventions.
Three years before, he'd written an article that
began with a critical look at French attempts to
build dirigibles. That was a clumsy form of flight,
he said. A bird weighs six hundred times more than
the air it displaces; yet a goose, for example,
never exerts more than a tenth of a horsepower in
Maxim never doubted that heavier-than-air flight
would win out. He also noted that birds could
combine lift and propulsion in their wings, but
that was too subtle for us. And we didn't manage to
do so until the late 1930s, when we finally created
Finally, unlike the Wright brothers, Maxim had a
morbid certainty about the purpose of the airplane.
He ends his 1891 article thus:
Flying-machines will therefore be employed only
by the rich and highly civilized nations. Small
nations and half-civilized tribes will still have
to content themselves with their present mode of
Maxim may not have succeeded in flying; but, by
1915, airplanes were indeed flying the skies of
France. And mounted upon them were the murderous
kin of Maxim's machine guns.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E. W. Roberts, Early Flight. Journal of the
Society of Automotive Engineers., Vol. II, No.
H. S. Maxim, My Life. (London: Methuen
& Co., Ltd., 1915)
I. Hogg, The Weapons that Changed the
World. (New York: Arbor House, 1986).
H. S. Maxim, A New Flying-Machine: Maxim's
Experiments in Aerial Navigation. The Century
Magazine, Vol. XLIV, No. 3, January 1895, pp.
H. S. Maxim, Aerial Navigation: The Power Required.
The Century Magazine Vol. XLII, No. 6,
October, 1891, pp. 829-836.
For more on Hiram Maxim, see Episodes 694 and 1357.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 210.
Photograph of Maxim's flying machine taken on its
launch rails in 1893.
(From the 1895 Century
Chilling image of Maxim showing his gun off to his
(from My Life
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.