Today, we watch two early not-quite-airplane
flights. 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.
One reason is that Hudson and Hiram Maxim were two
people -- brothers born in Maine in 1840 and 1853.
The younger brother, Hudson, developed military
explosives. Older brother, Hiram, invented all
sorts of things, but he's best known for his
machine gun. He worked for a good part of his life
in England, and the English knighted him for his
An article in the 1918 Journal of the Society
of Automotive Engineers began with two
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.
Now there's a shocker. Who's ever heard of the Ader
and Maxim airplanes today! Yet we're asked to
believe that the Wright brothers didn't invent the
airplane. Well, the Maxim and Ader airplanes were
real enough, and they both got off the ground. The
catch is that we can't really ask, "Who flew
first?" until we agree on what we're willing to
The French builder, Clement Ader, built 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 50 yards. The plane had
a design flaw that didn't show up in that minimal
flight -- Ader hadn't provided adequate control.
But he thought he'd succeeded. He immediately began
a larger version. When he flew it in 1897, it
barely got off the ground and then crashed.
Maxim invested £20,000 in a huge,
100-foot-wingspan biplane, in England. It was
powered by two lightweight, steam engines that he'd
designed for it. Each one generated in the
neighborhood of 160 or 180 horsepower. He began
flight tests in 1894. On the third try he powered
the plane up to 40 mph. It left its track, flew
about 200 feet, and crashed. After that, Maxim lost
interest in flying. He went on to other inventions.
The 1890s were filled with failed attempts to fly,
but Ader and Maxim came as close as anyone to
success. Then the Wright brothers made repeated
successful flights in 1903, but they rode on so
much experience with failure. They were serious,
clear-headed young men who methodically sorted out
all the things that failure had revealed.
We really should celebrate those daring people who
failed and yet did not fail -- people whose flights
of the mind eventually made flights of the body
possible -- people who remind us that the worst
failure isn't falling to earth. The worst failure
is tying yourself to the ground without ever trying
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Roberts, E.W., Early Flight. Journal of the
Society of Automotive Engineers., Vol.II, No.
For more on Hiram Maxim, see Episodes 694 and 1357.
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1738.
For a full size image
click on the thumbnail above
From the January, 1895, Century
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
From the January, 1895, Century
The steam boiler for Maxim's airplane
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