"'Eureka, Eureka', for it works like a charm."|
With those words, written December 4, 1876, Melville M. Murrell of Hamblen County shared his joy at
the success of "The American Flying Machine."
The 23-year-old Murrell was writing to Will A. Turner in Dakota about the Flying Machine he had
designed and built. He told Turner he had "finished it Saturday night" and sent the model to the patent office
that very day.
Murrell's fascination with manned flight began before the birth of two of America's aviation pioneers,
Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Family records and oral history, preserved by Murrell's son, mike and daughter, Mrs. Edwin Rebecca
Murrell Weesner, relate young Murrell's attempt to fly by flapping cabbage leaves while jumping from a
stone wall at his Panther Springs home.
He carved models of flying machines and played with pulleys and wheels as a boy.
Copying from nature, Murrell developed his own Ornithopter, a bird-like flying machine with wings that
Murrell's flying machine was patented August 14, 1877 - Wilber Wright was 10 years old and Orville
was five. Patent number 194,104 was attached to Murrell's invention, in all likelihood the first heavier than
air flying machine so registered in the United States.
Flights of several hundred yards were made before the patent was awarded.
John Cowan, a hired hand on the Murrell Farm, is credited with being the first to fly Murrell's machine,
according to Mrs. Weesner. Operation of the machine required considerable strength, an asset Murrell
It must have been a very strange sight. The craft was controlled by a series of hand operated cords and
pulleys. Its wings, flapping up and down like those of a bird, were divided horizontally with slots that opened
for the least air resistance on the upstroke and closed on the downstroke for maximum lift.
The first flight ended with a crash after a few seconds. Cowan was unhurt and the plane only slightly
damaged, according to Mrs. Weesner's accounting.
To place Murrell's remarkable 1877 craft in historical perspective, consider these facts. While the gasoline
engine was still a thing of the future, a steam-drive plane made a half-mile flight at Washington in 1896. The
Wright Brothers, who began glider experiments in 1900, did not accomplish their successful Army test flight
until 1908, 31 years after Murrell's flying machine defied gravity.
Pieces that remained of Murrell's "Aerial Navigator" were removed in 1964 from the old building in
Panther Springs where it was constructed and donated by the family to the Air Force Museum at Wright-
Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio. Later the pieces and documents were sent to the Smithsonian Institution in
Washington, D.C., which recently opened a multi-million dollar Museum of Aviation History. Some of the
original parts and documents are back and are now on display here at Rose Center.
Murrell became a Methodist Preacher in 1882, but tried his hand at developing a flying machine again in
1912. This one was powered by a motorcycle engine. The plane never left the ground and was burned in
1928 by Murrell and a hired hand.
Family records indicate that he turned down a $60,000 offer for the rights to his first flying machine
because it was not perfected.
Nevertheless, his design contained many construction details common to modern aircraft. The type
framework, wing design and rudder were similar to those incorporated in today's flying machines. While his
plane lacked power, Murrell's theories were aviationally sound.
The inventor lived long enough to actually see his first testing ground from the air. Before his death on
February 20, 1933, Murrell flew over Hamblen County several times in small airplanes, rickety contraptions
by today's standards, but surely wonders to the man, who as a boy flapped cabbage leaves to reach his dreams.