Herring, Augustus M.
- David R. Griffiths
Herring, Augustus M. (03 August 1867–17 July 1926), airplane designer, was born in Covington, Georgia, the son of William F. Herring and Chloe Conyers, occupations unknown. He was married to Lillian Mellen and had two children.
In his early teenage years, Herring’s interest in the air was aroused by a toy helicopter butterfly. He began to make large model helicopters, then took a four-year engineering course at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He left in 1888 without graduating when the school rejected his thesis on flying machines as impractical.
Herring is credited, in his New York Times obituary, with having developed in 1889 the “aerofoil,” a curved surface—such as an aircraft wing, aileron, or rudder—designed to obtain reaction from the air through which it moves. In 1889 he sent his first model plane into the air, using a compressed-air motor. After a brief stint in 1895 with the Smithsonian Institution’s Samuel P. Langley, who was to build the highly publicized but unsuccessful “aerodrome” that crashed into the Potomac River, Herring began a series of collaborations that placed him on the periphery of great events and earned him a reputation as “the perennial thorn in the budding aviation industry’s side” (Combs, p. 356).
In December 1895 he was hired by French-born Octave Chanute to help design and test gliders that would remain stable even in gusty winds. With Herring doing the flying, Chanute and a tiny group of engineers experimented in 1896 with a wide variety of multiple-winged gliders on the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan. They eventually made some 700 flights of the most successful pre–Wright brothers glider—the Chanute biplane, with braced wings and a fixed tail unit on a semiflexible outrigger. Chanute and Herring soon fell out over Herring’s insistence that the biplane was ready for an internal combustion engine. Meanwhile, in 1896, Herring filed a patent application on his own “curved wing” flying machine, but it was rejected. (Seven years later, Wilbur and Orville Wright filed their successful application.) In 1898 Herring failed in an attempt to fly a compressed-air-powered biplane glider. Chanute later turned down his request for money to build a motor-driven flying machine.
The two were drawn back together in fall 1902 when Chanute hired Herring as pilot to try out one of Chanute’s gliders at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wrights were also working. Annoyed at being interrupted in the midst of what would be the most famous design and development program in aviation history, the Wright brothers felt obligated to watch Chanute’s test flights. They turned out to be a disaster; even on a steep sand dune, Herring could do no more than come downhill in brief hops and jumps.
By this time, Herring had developed a “reputation in aeronautical circles of exaggerating the credit due him for his share in the experiments of others” (Morris and Smith, p. 68). Leaving Kitty Hawk, he went straight to Washington, D.C., and tried to see Langley, apparently ready to give him information about the Wrights’ plane. Langley refused to see him.
In 1904, the year after the Wrights’ first powered flight, Herring proposed that the brothers give him a one-third interest in their invention. He suggested that some of their patents infringed patents he claimed to have, and he implied that expensive litigation might be avoided if they accepted his proposal. The Wrights did not reply and learned later that Herring’s claims appeared to be bogus. About that time, Jerome Fanciulli, a newspaper and wire service reporter who covered aviation from its infancy, got to know Herring. Here is his assessment (quoted in Combs, p. 308): “He was a very clever fellow, a faker… . I went to New York when he was trying to get a Signal Corps contract. [I] visited his shop. He had a beautiful shop, beautiful propellers, and all that sort of thing. But as young as I was then, I immediately sized him up as a faker.”
The next great aviation pioneer approached by Herring was Glenn Curtiss. Trying to generate interest in commercial applications for his aircraft design, he was put in touch with the persuasive Herring, who said he had government contracts and aeronautical patents antedating the Wright brothers’ patents. Not bothering to investigate, Curtiss agreed to form the Herring-Curtiss Company, capitalized at $360,000, mostly from wealthy New Yorkers. In 1909 Herring-Curtiss built the Gold Bug, or Gold Flyer, which immediately set distance records and won prestigious prizes in France. Its ease of handling was attributed to mounting the ailerons—used for directional control—between the wings, an alternative to the Wrights’ use of wing-warping.
That same year, however, in the first legal action in American aviation, the Wrights alleged that Herring-Curtiss’s aileron was an infringement of their patent. Curtiss hoped to base his defense in part on patents supposedly held by Herring. After much wrangling, a court order requiring Herring to turn over the patents produced nothing more than patent applications, none of which had ever been granted. Angry at being defrauded, Curtiss convinced the directors of Herring-Curtiss to put the firm in bankruptcy, which allowed him to regain control. In 1914 the U.S. Court of Appeals found in favor of the Wright Company.
By then, Herring had associated himself with a yacht builder named William Starling Burgess, and in 1910 the Herring-Burgess airplane, which closely resembled the Curtiss design, appeared. In 1918 he resurrected the bankrupt Herring-Curtiss Company and sued “Glenn Curtiss and others” for $5 million, charging that the bankruptcy had been contrived to ruin him. Herring claimed during the litigation that he had built craft that flew “before the Wrights ever commenced to experiment.” The court decided for the defendants, and Herring appealed. But while the appeal was pending, he died of a stroke in Brooklyn.
Modern aviation historians do not support Herring’s claims to being one of the key players in the earliest days of flying machines. At best, he was a clever engineer and able pilot who stood in the wings, stepping forward at times to help the trailblazers, and at other times to annoy and frustrate them.
One of the best modern assessments of Herring can be found in Harry Combs, Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers (1979). Herring’s years with Chanute are described in Howard C. Scamehorn, Balloons to Jets: A Century of Aeronautics in Illinois, 1855–1955 (1957). Also useful are Enzo Angelucci, The World Encyclopedia of Civil Aircraft, from Leonardo Da Vinci to the Present (1982); Lloyd Morris and Kendall Smith, Ceiling Unlimited: The Story of American Aviation from Kitty Hawk to Supersonics (1953); Charles H. Gibbs-Smith, The Aeroplane: An Historical Survey of Its Origins and Development (1960); and Archibald Black, The Story of Flying (1940). An obituary is in the New York Times, 19 July 1926.