Bill Frost's Flying Machine


By the late 18th Century, ballooning was a well developed form of flight and by the late 19th Century, gliders had taken off.

The record for the first powered flight is attributed to the Wright brothers in 1903, but it seems today that there is some evidence to rival their claims.

This comes in the form of Bill Frost's attempts to take man to the skies with his flying machine in Saundersfoot in the 1890's.

The story is sustained by rumour and it has become a local legend. Fuelled by mutual feeling in the community that Saundersfoot really should be recorded as the birthplace of aviation, it is undoubtedly subject to exaggeration.

According to Thomas G. Sticking's book, The Story of Saundersfoot, the machine 'was a triplane, but only made one flight - on a night when a gale was raging - when it took to the air, unpredictably, and landed two miles away, in pieces!'

It is true that there is evidence that a flying machine was built, and that in fact a patent was granted based upon its design. This is a two page document with an accompanying sketch.

Bill's flying machine was designed to take to the air by means of a horizontal fan, with the assistance of a cylinder filled with hydrogen . Once in the air, the machine would glide for a while on its wings. When more height was required, the wings would be tilted upwards and the fan would once more be used.

There exists two newspaper articles, detailing reports of the Saundersfoot pioneers progress.

The first is from the Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser - 11th October 1895.
This states that Bill Frost had obtained provisional protection for his flying machine invention and had been engaged on the project for over 15 years (since before 1880).

He also gave an interview to the press in 1932, just three years before he died.

What is the subject of debate is whether or not any of the trials that were given to the machine were successful.

Even if the machine did in fact fly, does it actually qualify as being of a powered design or was it just an elaborate glider?

It seems that there is no proof to be had of the claims. Even if Bill did fly, it is unlikely that the history books would be rewritten because of the lack of documentary evidence. The Wright brother's claim is stronger as they have an unbroken and well recorded history of experimentation.

Bill Frost born in Pembrokeshire in 1848. He died in 1935, blind and poor.

He is reputed to have been a highly talented man. He was a carpenter and builder by trade but was also an accomplished musician and founder of the Saundersfoot male voice choir.

Aged 28, in 1876, while working as a carpenter, he was made airborne by a plank of wood that he was carrying in a gale. This was to be the seed of his attempts to make man fly.

During the first years of the 1890's, Bill experimented with his idea and would be seen by his bemused onlookers to be running around fields with a sheet of zinc strapped to his head. Many thought him to be suffering the effects of the death of both his daughter, and then wife, a couple of years before by this unusual behaviour.

Bill Frost toiled at his idea for many years. Because he was a devote chapel going man, many believe that the stories of his success are true. Some people still remember the man himself and describe him as being a loveable old character - they maintain that he would not have lied or exaggerated the results of his trials.

It seems that his garden at St. Brides Hill played an important part in the story. The machine is reported to have been built in a workshop there and flown in fields nearby.

There are stories of Bill's plane crashing into a tree whilst attempting to clear a hedge during one of its test runs. The machine was smashed to pieces during a gale before repairs could be made to it after the incident.
This story itself is an indicator that his machine did indeed get off the ground.

Bill's heart was broken after seeing his attempts ending in failure.

He received a rebut from the War Office when he offered his patent to the Secretary of State for War. In the reply he received he was told 'The nation does not intend to adopt aerial navigation as a means of warfare'. How wrong they were!

He kept renewing the patent, but there came a time when he could no longer afford to do so.

He lacked the contacts, money and resources to pursue his idea after his machine was wrecked. He died aged eighty-seven.

But it seems now that there may be a chance that Bill's claims could be substantiated :-

Geoff Bellingham from Minnesota is attempting to raise funds to make a replica of the machine.

It is hoped that this may put an end to the arguments as to whether Bill's machine stood a hope of flying.

The Minnesota plan is in two stages :-

In the reconstruction they hope to remain as faithful to the original as they can by following the original patent description. :-

Complete Specification - a Flying Machine
The flying machine is constructed with an upper and lower chamber of wire work, covered with light waterproof material. Each chamber formed sharp at both ends with parallel sides. The upper large chamber to contain sufficient gas to lift the machine. In the centre of upper chamber a cylinder is fixed in which a horizontal fan is driven by means of a shaft and bevelled gearing worked from the lower chamber. When the machine has been risen to a sufficient height, then the fan is stopped and the upper chamber, which has wings attached, is tilted forward causing the machine to move as a bird, onward and downward. When low enough it is again tilted in an opposite direction which causes it to soar onward and upward, when it is again assisted if necessary by the fan. The steering is done by a rudder at both ends.
Dated 30th August 1895

They are confident that the machine will indeed be capable of flying with the pilot powering the flying machine.

If things go as planned, the machine should be ready in just over a year.


Perhaps popular opinion will be swayed from the Wright brother's 'Flyer' in favour of Bill Frost's machine - we shall have to wait and see.

James Insell 1998