Henry Gatling and His Flying Machine

James Henry Gatling and his Flying Machine . Image copyright F. Roy Johnson  and his family, and held by the State Archives.On July 15, 1816, Henry Gatling, inventor of an early flying machine and brother of Richard Gatling of Gatling gun fame, was born in Hertford County.

In interviews, Gatling claimed the flight of the turkey buzzard as his inspiration. The bird, he observed, could soar for long intervals with only slight wing movements. To try to mimic this method of flight, he developed a flying machine with hinged triangular wings that could be moved with wires.

A reproduction of the Gatling Aeroplane. Image courtesy of the Murfreesboro Historical Association, Inc.Gatling selected hand-cranked engines with blower-type wooden blades in front of each wing. The blades blew air to the underside of the wings to keep the plane aloft until necessary momentum was achieved.  Anticipating the ground maneuvering needs of aircraft, Gatling placed large wooden wheels at the front and a smaller one under the tail of his “aeroplane.”  The completed contraption was about 18-feet long with a 14-foot wingspan.

Gatling performed a number of ground and air trials of his airplane the summer and fall of 1873. Eyewitnesses to machine’s 1873 first (and only) trip through the air recalled an approximately 100-foot flight from a raised platform, with the plane descending rapidly suggesting that it was actually more of a “glide” than a “flight.” The descent left the machine badly damaged, and Gatling never made the repairs necessary to attempt further flights.

The flyer garnered wide press attention in 1872 and 1873. One article claimed that the machine was “destined at some future day to eclipse the [his brother’s] famous gun, and fly triumphant over time, space, and water.”  There is little doubt that the statement reflects the inventor’s aspirations on both counts.

Gatling was murdered on his property in September 1879.  The airplane, which had been stored in a barn, was destroyed by a fire in 1905.

A group of enthusiasts in Murfreesboro have built what they believe to be an accurate replica of the Gatling flying machine.

Other related resources:

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.