Book Review: To Caress the Air – Augustus Herring and the Dawn of Flight (Book 1 &2)

Augustus Herring got screwed, several times over. He was young, ambitious, creative and a superb engineer, and was utterly obsessed with solving the problem of powered flight. And according to him, he had essentially solved it back in 1896, some seven years before the Wright brothers. Was Herring the first to fly a powered airplane, in 1896? Sort of; maybe. But he sure didn’t get proper credit for what it took to get to that point on a Lake Michigan beach in 1896, regardless of whether you think he actually flew or not. Nor nearly enough credit for his many very real contributions to others in helping solve the final problem, including the Wrights.

The early years of soaring and powered flight was full of intense competition, out-sized egos, jealousies, grand-standing, colossal blunders, intrigue and law suits, and Augustus Herring ended up mostly on the receiving side of much of it. He came to be derided by a few key powerful men (the Wrights, Octave Chanute, Glenn Curtiss, and others) precisely because he was a threat to them, as his many insights and developments were brilliant and became key stepping stones on the path to sustained powered flight. In these two very in-depth and meticulously-researched books, long time aviation enthusiast and writer David Gierke sets the record straight, in the form of a highly engaging historical novel. Anyone with an interest in the early days of flight will find these books to be essential reading to gain a more complete insight in how much of it really happened, and the intrigues behind the scenes.

I was also hoping to finally find out if Herring was the true father of the hemi engine. Just like Herring’s claim to have flown in 1896, that claim is also still a wee bit murky, but it may yet well turn out to be the case.

I came to know David Gierke and more about Augustus Herring’s role in the development of the hemi head through my article on the 1903 Premier, which has the first documented OHC hemi engine. David left a comment there that claimed Herring had invented the hemispherical combustion chamber in 1898. That led to a correspondence which I had hoped would lead to definitive answer. It hasn’t yet, in my opinion. There’s no doubt that Herring’s developments in building a light but powerful engine to create powered flight (one of the two key obstacles) included a combustion chamber that Gierke calls a “hemi”.

Although Herring’s combustion chamber was dome-shaped, it only had a single valve at the top, and initially used exhaust ports at the bottom of the cylinder (like a two stroke engine) and later he used a rotating disc to allow the single valve in the head to function as both intake and exhaust valve. But at least by 1902, his model airplane engine (above) does show the classic hemi head configuration with two canted valves, which allowed much better breathing and was a breakthrough in increasing engine output, critical to both aviation and racing. But by that time, there were already other examples of that configuration.

So although there’s no doubt in my mind that Herring understood the importance of better breathing to improve specific output, and his pre-hemi (as I call them) heads were clearly pioneering, and undoubtedly influenced other engine builders, there’s some details as to who first used the two canted valves (the hallmarks of the true hemi engine) that were not revealed here, and will be the subject of some further investigation and collaboration with David. Quite likely it’s similar to the first powered flight claim: Herring may not have been the one to take credit for the final result, but he undoubtedly contributed quite substantially to the early concepts and the further developments that ultimately led to the definitive hemi head configuration.

I digressed, but this is what led me to Herring and Gierke’s superb books. I was a bit shocked to find that 717 pages in Book 1 were only half of David’s tome. But I was surprised at how utterly engrossed I became in it, and managed to finish it in maybe 3-4 days, although my work was impacted some. And Part 2 was just as or more compelling reading. One could argue that endless details about what everyone redeemer at the restaurant every day is a bit superfluous, but it all adds to the incredibly all-encompassing experience of stepping back to another era, with more detail than one could possible imagine. But I happen to find even the most mundane elements of history fascinating, and the story line is so compelling that it never once gets slow or threatens to lose one’s interest.

David has spent years researching Herring’s life to the most minute details, and this is a most rewarding result. I recommend it heartily to anyone interested not only in early aviation, but also those with a more generalized interest in the period, which was of course a most fertile one in other technologies like engines, cars, motorcycles, electricity, etc.  Herring got involved or influenced all of them, including building what might well be called the first production motorcycle. A remarkable character who struggled because he was not astute enough in the business and political aspects of life, and those individuals who did made sure Herring wasn’t going to outshine them.

And one of these days soon, I hope to unravel the full story on the development of the hemi engine. I would like to give full credit to Herring now (as David has done in the book), but there’s still a few critical evolutionary details to attribute. There’s no doubt that his “pre-hemi” (my term for it) influenced others, in the US and in Europe, but who exactly was the first to take full advantage of the hemi’s potential, by employing two canted valves, still needs to be determined and verified. Stay tuned.


“To Caress the Air” by David Gierke is available as an e-book and in print from Amazon