The Wright Brothers were quintessential practitioners of ethical behavior. That is more than can be said about some others involved in the nascent airplane industry.
Augustus M. Herring is one such unsavory character who popped in and out of the Wright Brothers’ life.
Herring was an unpleasant man with a big ego who fancied himself as a great inventor in the field of aviation. His boasts were often designed to deceive others.
Herring was born in Georgia in 1865. He matriculated to Steven Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, to study Mechanical Engineering but never graduated.
Herring told people that he didn’t graduate because the faculty thought his thesis on flight was “fanciful.” In truth he failed to complete the thesis he was writing on the subject of a marine steam engine, not flight.
Orville and Wilbur Wright first met Herring in 1902 during their glider experiments at Kitty Hawk. The Wrights were there to test their new glider that they had designed using the data from their recent wind tunnel experiments.
Octave Chanute, a aeronautical enthusiast and friend of the Wrights, was also there to test two of his gliders. Chanute brought Herring with him to assemble and fly the gliders.
Octave Chanute was a retired consulting engineer for a number of railroads, a construction engineer and one of the foremost American authorities on flying. Wilbur had written him on May 13, 1900, asking his advice on a suitable location for conducting glider experiments. That correspondence triggered a lively lifelong dialog.
Chanute respected the Wrights technical advances in flying and wanted them to observe two gliders of different designs that he hoped would attain automatic
stability in flight. The Wrights humored Chanute, believing a better approach was to use human control as they were doing.
The Wrights were leery of Herring coming to Kitty Hawk because they didn’t want to reveal the results of their research to strangers, but acquiesced to Chanute’s request. It turned out that neither of the gliders brought to Kitty Hawk by Chanute successfully flew.
Herring is Bungler
After Herring left the Wright camp, he went directly to Washington where he tried to get a job with Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian, who was working on his own “aerodrome.” He didn’t get to see Langley, but left him a letter suggesting that he had knowledge of the Wrights’ progress. Chanute subsequently advised Langley that Herring was a “bungler” and he was not hired.
The next time Herring entered the lives of the Wrights was after the Wrights filed for their patent in 1903. Herring wrote them and claimed that he held a prior patent on a machine similar to theirs. He offered to form a joint company to market the Wright Flyer on the basis of 1/3 interest for him and 2/3 interest for them. The Wrights ignored what they termed as Herring’s “rascality.”
Wilbur wrote to Chanute, “A copy is also enclosed of a letter received a few days ago from Mr. Herring. This time he surprised us. —- But that he would have the effrontery to write us such a letter, after his other schemes of rascality had failed was really a little more than we expected. We shall make no answer at all.”
Herring Wins Army Bid
In 1908 Herring showed up again. The Army Signal Corps had advertised for bids for a “Heavier-Than-air Flying Machine.” The specification had been tailored closely to the Wright machine.
To everyone’s surprise, the low bidder turned out to be Herring with a bid of $20,000. Herring’s plan was to obtain the award of the contract and then subcontract the building of the machine to the Wrights. His plan was foiled when the Army decided to accept both Herring’s and the Wrights’ bid.
Herring, in an attempt to save face, said he would provide an airplane and fly it to Washington. After the Army had given him numerous extensions to the due date of September 28, Herring stopped the charade by formally requesting his contract be voided for reasons of non-delivery.