Simanaitis Says

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HOLMES AND AEROPLANES PART 1

BY THE TIME aeroplanes reliably flew in British skies, the world’s first consulting detective Sherlock Holmes was already bee-keeping in his retirement. However, he had excellent opportunity to see fledgling aircraft soar above his cottage on the Sussex South Downs. What’s more, the writings of Sherlockian scholar Michael Harrison offer specifics in Holmes being influenced by aviation. Part 1 today at SimanaitisSays provides background from one Harrison book. Part 2 tomorrow quotes Holmes himself in another Harrison work.

The World of Sherlock Holmes, by Michael Harrison, Dutton, 1975.

In The World of Sherlock Holmes, Michael Harrison reminds us that Holmes’ rival Professor James Moriarty gained initial fame (not yet infamy) in writing The Dynamics of an Astroid. Harrison observes, “Moriarty’s work stamps him as a man of his moment. Aeronautics was an obsession with the inventive, the philosophical, the speculative mind of the mid-nineteenth century.”

In the proper spirit of Sherlockian scholarship, Harrison shares the whimsical penchant that Holmes et al were real people (just as we all believe). In his comments about pioneer aviation, Harrison writes with similar optimism: “The great name is that of Sir George Cayley, first to lay down the elements of aerodynamics through long and careful experimentation with gilders of his own construction, in one of which he undoubtedly flew.”

Sir George Cayley, 1773–1857, English engineer and inventor.

There’s only a touch of exaggeration in Harrison’s statement. According to Wikipedia, Cayley is considered the father of aviation, cited by even the Wright Brothers as a source of information. In 1853, for example, a full-size Cayley glider flew across Brompton Dale with a person aboard, possibly Cayley’s coachman, footman, or butler.

No fool, Cayley.

Harrison also cites W.H. Phillips and his 1847 helicopter: “The Phillips helicopter was steam-driven. Lift was effected by two contra-rotating airfoils of aluminum, in the trailing edges of which were slits through which jets of high-pressure steam were ejected.”

The steam was fed to the slits by a flexible pipe from a stationary ground-based boiler.

“Did it fly?” Harrison asks. “On the Salisbury Plain, when the inventor fed steam to the aerofoils, the helicopter rose so rapidly and with such velocity that it broke connection with the flexible pipe, and took off in unassisted flight. It was never seen again.”

Thankfully, no coachman, footman, nor butler was lost.

“In the same year,” Harrison writes, “and also on Salisbury Plain, Stringfellow achieved remarkable results with his model monoplanes, power by lightweight steam engines of his own design. And in 1867, so great and diffused was the interest in aeronautics, that a band of enthusiasts founded the Aeronautical (now the Royal Aeronautical) Society.”

Above, John Stringfellow, 1799–1883, English bobbin manufacturer. Below, William Samuel Henson, 1812–1888, English-American lace-making manufacturer.


In 1843, Henson and Stringfellow formed the Aerial Transit Company. Results, however, were perhaps less than remarkable. Henson grew discouraged, emigrated to the U.S. in 1849, and gave up on aviation. However, he does appear as a character in The Balloon-Hoax, a fictional 1844 trans-Atlantic tale by Edgar Allan Poe.

The 1843 Aerial Steam Carriage of Henson and Stringfellow, engraving of an imaginary flight. Below, a patent drawing of the craft.


Stringfellow’s efforts were mentioned in The Flight of the Phoenix, a 1965 Jimmy Stewart movie about rebuilding a crashed airplane and flying it out of the desert to safety.

Harrison summarizes aeronautical matters in The World of Sherlock Holmes by noting, “No man who had the prevision to imagine and write The Dynamics of an Asteroid could have failed to exert the strongest influence on so enquiring a mind as that of the young Sherlock Holmes.”

Holmes and Moriarty. Image by Sidney Paget for the Strand Magazine, December 1893.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue with more Sherlockian fact and fancy in another Harrison book, I, Sherlock Holmes: Memoirs of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, OM, late Consulting Private Detective-in-Ordinary to Their Majesties Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, and King George V. All in good aero fun. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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