CHAPTER XVIII. A Great British Inventor of Aeroplanes

Though, as we have seen, most of the early attempts at aerial navigation were made by foreign engineers, yet we are proud to number among the ranks of the early inventors of heavier-than-air machines Sir Hiram Maxim, who, though an American by birth, has spent most of his life in Britain and may therefore be called a British inventor.

Perhaps to most of us this inventor's name is known more in connection with the famous "Maxim" gun, which he designed, and which was named after him. But as early as 1894, when the construction of aeroplanes was in a very backward state, Sir Hiram succeeded in making an interesting and ingenious aeroplane, which he proposed to drive by a particularly light steam-engine.

Sir Hiram's first machine, which was made in 1890, was designed to be guided by a double set of rails, one set arranged below and the other above its running wheels. The intention was to make the machine raise itself just off the ground rails, but yet be prevented from soaring by the set of guard rails above the wheels, which acted as a check on it. The motive force was given by a very powerful steam-engine of over 300 horse-power, and this drove two enormous propellers, some 17 feet in length. The total weight of the machine was 8000 pounds, but even with this enormous weight the engine was capable of raising the machine from the ground.

For three or four years Sir Hiram made numerous experiments with his aeroplane, but in 1894 it broke through the upper guard rail and turned itself over among the surrounding trees, wrecking itself badly.

But though the Maxim aeroplane did not yield very practical results, it proved that if a lighter but more powerful engine could be made, the chief difficulty iii the way of aerial flight would be removed. This was soon forthcoming in the invention of the petrol motor. In a lecture to the Scottish Aeronautical Society, delivered in Glasgow in November, 1913, Sir Hiram claimed to be the inventor of the first machine which actually rose from the earth. Before the distinguished inventor spoke of his own work in aviation he recalled experiments made by his father in 1856-7, when Sir Hiram was sixteen years of age. The flying machine designed by the elder Maxim consisted of a small platform, which it was proposed to lift directly into the air by the action of two screw-propellers revolving in reverse directions. For a motor the inventor intended to employ some kind of explosive material, gunpowder preferred, but the lecturer distinctly remembered that his father said that if an apparatus could be successfully navigated through the air it would be of such inevitable value as a military engine that no matter how much it might cost to run it would be used by Governments.

Of his own claim as an inventor of air-craft it would be well to quote Sir Hiram's actual words, as given by the Glasgow Herald, which contained a full report of the lecture.

"Some forty years ago, when I commenced to think of the subject, my first idea was to lift my machint by vertical propellers, and I actually commenced drawings and made calculations for a machine on that plan, using an oil motor, or something like a Brayton engine, for motive power. However, I was completely unable to work out any system which would not be too heavy to lift itself directly into the air, and it was only when I commenced to study the aeroplane system that it became apparent to me that it would be possible to make a machine light enough and powerful enough to raise itself without the agency of a balloon. From the first I was convinced that it would be quite out of the question to employ a balloon in any form. At that time the light high-speed petrol motor had no existence. The only power available being steam-engines, I made all my calculations with a view of using steam as the motive power. While I was studying the question of the possibility of making a flying machine that would actually fly, I became convinced that there was but one system to work on, and that was the aeroplane system. I made many calculations, and found that an aeroplane machine driven by a steam-engine ought to lift itself into the air."

Sir Hiram then went on to say that it was the work of making an automatic gun which was the direct cause of his experiments with flying machines. To continue the report:

"One day I was approached by three gentle- men who were interested in the gun, and they asked me if it would be possible for me to build a flying machine, how long it would take, and how much it would cost. My reply was that it would take five years and would cost L50,000. The first three years would be devoted to developing a light internal-combustion engine, and the remaining two years to making a flying machine.

"Later on a considerable sum of money was placed at my disposal, and the experiments commenced, but unfortunately the gun business called for my attention abroad, and during the first two years of the experimental work I was out of England eighteen months.

"Although I had thought much of the internal-combustion engine it seemed to me that it would take too long to develop one and that it would be a hopeless task in my absence from England; so I decided that in my first experiments at least I would use a steam-engine. I therefore designed and made a steam-engine and boiler of which Mr. Charles Parsons has since said that, next to the Maxim gun, it developed more energy for its weight than any other heat engine ever made. That was true at the time, but is very wide of the mark now."

Speaking of motors, the veteran lecturer remarked: "Perhaps there was no problem in the world on which mathematicians had differed so widely as on the problem of flight. Twenty years ago experimenters said: 'Give us a motor that will develop 1 horse-power with the weight of a barnyard fowl, and we will very soon fly.' At the present moment they had motors which would develop over 2 horse-power and did not weigh more than a 12-pound barnyard fowl. These engines had been developed - I might say created - by the builders of motor cars. Extreme lightness had been gradually obtained by those making racing cars, and that had been intensified by aviators. In many cases a speed of 80 or 100 miles per hour had been attained, and machines had remained in the air for hours and had flown long distances. In some cases nearly a ton had been carried for a short distance."

Such words as these, coming from the lips of a great inventor, give us a deep insight into the working of the inventor's mind, and, incidentally, show us some of the difficulties which beset all pioneers in their tasks. The science of aviation is, indeed, greatly indebted to these early inventors, not the least of whom is the gallant Sir Hiram Maxim.