Who "Really" Built the First Airplane?

The American Flying Machine

Melville Milton Murrell
( 1855 - 1933 )

(Click on images below to see larger view.)

Young Murrell   Older Murrell   Murrell Age 30

Pictures of Melville at different ages.

This information isn't intended to take away any credit from Wilbur and Orville Wright. I am also not trying to rewrite history. The fact is that there are always people in history who get forgotten or overlooked. Some of these people made great discoveries that were mysteriously left out of our well-known history books. I think Melville Murrell was such a person. On April 16, 1877 Melville filed for a patent for his plane, "The American Flying Machine," 22 years before the Wright brothers built their first plane.

Melville was an inventor and pioneer in the field of Aerodynamics. He lived near Panther Springs in Morristown, Tennessee. The place where he lived is almost destroyed now, but fortunately, part of it still stands and can be seen along Murrell road. The Rose Center in Morristown also has the original pair of wings on display, along with a model of the plane made by a local teacher. A children's book was written by Tres Seymour entitled, "Our Neighbor Is a Strange, Strange Man." It tells a fictional story about Melville's invention and is available in many libraries and bookstores.

(Click on images below to see larger view.)

Display at Rose Center

The Murrell display at the Rose Center in Morristown, Tennessee.

Wings and model view 1

The original wings and model, as displayed at the Rose Center.
(Note: The original wings are on the wall.)
(The model is hanging in front of the wings.)

Wings and model view 2

Another view of the original wings and model.

Close up of wing

A close up shot of the left wing.

Gene Smith of the local State Area Vocational School built the 1/4th scale model of Melville's plane that is on display at the Rose Center. Below are some pictures of the model. Click an image for a larger view.

(Click on images below to see larger view.)

Front Below View   Left Below View

Our Neighbor Is a Strange, Strange Man

Children's book about Murrell's plane.

Our Neighbor Is a Strange, Strange Man
By Tres Seymour
List Price: $15.95
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover - 32 pages (March 1999)
Orchard Books; ISBN: 0531301079
Dimensions (in inches): 0.35 x 11.31 x 9.05

Book Reviews

Horn Book:
A young boy wonders about his neighbor, Melville Murrell, who talks to birds and wants to fly. Murrell builds a flying contraption, and the boy is astounded when it lifts off the ground. This fictionalized glimpse of an actual pre-Wright-brothers invention is illustrated with expressive acrylic paintings. Repetition of the titular phrase becomes tedious, but the book is interesting for its unfamiliar subject. An author's note offers additional background.

Debbie Hochman Turvey, Marketing Director:
"Melville Murrell built the first human-powered airplane in 1876, years before the Wright brothers. With few words and big gouache paintings, this picture book tells Murrell's story through the eyes of a small boy in rural Tennessee....The triumph is in the child's voice and viewpoint, at first wary and doubting, then rising with excitement, until, finally, the great contraption FLIES, for goodness' sake."

It wasn't long ago that Melville's house still stood intact. The house itself was quite interesting. It was tall and quite narrow. It also had very narrow windows, which appeared to be around 2 to 3 feet wide and approximately 5 to 6 feet tall. Most people knew it as "The Haunted House," because it was really quite scary to look at. As a kid, we always wanted to go up there and check it out, but we always lost our nerve due to rumors that the farmer who lived there would shoot anyone he caught on his property.

Front Views of Murrell's Home
(Before and after being destroyed)

Front of Murrell's home before being destroyed.

Front of Murrell's home after being destroyed.

Side Views of Murrell's Home
(Before and after being destroyed)

Side of Murrell's home before being destroyed.    Side of Murrell's home after being destroyed.

(Click on image below to see larger view.)

Black and white photo of Melville's home

Black and white photo of Melville's home.

Letter Melville Wrote to Willie A. Turner

Below is my translation of a letter Melville wrote to his friend Willie A. Turner. Some of Melville's original letter was hard to read, so there could be some mistakes. I apologize if there is. You can click on the picture of the letter below to see the original letter Melville wrote. This letter was written on Dec 4, 1876 to tell his friend about his new invention, "The American Flying Machine."

(Click on image below to see original letter.)

My translation of Melville's letter

An Interview with Evelyn Bryan Johnson

I found an interview with Evelyn Bryan Johnson, pilot and manager of the Moore-Murrell Airport in Morristown, Tennessee. The interview was conducted by AVweb. Here is the question they asked pertaining to Melville Murrell and how she answered:

AVweb:  "Your home field in Morristown, Tennessee is named for M. M. Murrell. How close did he come to building the first flying machine back in 1877?"

Evelyn:  "His airplane was people-powered, no motor or engine. The story is that he didn't fly it but one of the men that worked for him did. It didn't perform exactly the way Mr. Murrell wanted it to and he got discouraged, then all of a sudden he quit the project and became a preacher. It's possible that if he had continued he might have done real well with it and maybe even have beat the Wright Brothers. Some of the pieces of the original machine are downtown in a museum, and one of the local teachers has built a replica that's also in the museum."

The American Flying Machine
A Unique Piece of Hamblen County History

Story by Jo Warren

"'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 flapped.
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 apparently lacked.
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.

(Click on images below to see larger view.)

Historic Marker Along Panther Creek Road

Historic marker dedicated to Melville Murrell

Melville as a Methodist Preacher

Melville as a Methodist Preacher

Revised Plane that Melville Began in 1910

Melville's revised plane in 1910

Test Flight of Revised Plane

Test flight of revised plane

Design and Patent Pictures

Top and front views of plane up close

Side and back views of plane up close

Original Patent page 1 up close

Original Patent page 2 up close

Related Links

Rose Center - Melville M. Murrell Exhibit

Original patent at U.S. Patent & Trademark Office

The children's book at Amazon.com

Evelyn Johnson's interview with AVweb

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