Biographical / Historical
Edward Wellman Serrell (1826-1906), a civil engineer and Union Army general, was born in London on November 5, 1826. His family immigrated to the United States in 1831, settling in New York City. Serrell became a civil engineer, working in railroad and bridge design and construction. He worked at times for the Erie Railroad, the Northern Railroad of New Hampshire, the New Jersey Central Railroad, and the Union Pacific Railroad. He also assisted in the 1848 Panama Survey. Serrell prepared plans and supervised the construction of several bridge projects: the Niagara River suspension bridge at Lewiston in 1850, the St. John, New Brunswick bridge, and the St. Lawrence bridge at Quebec. He served as chief engineer of the Hoosac Tunnel (1855-56).
At the beginning of the Civil War, Serrell organized the 1st New York Volunteer Engineer Regiment (1st NYVE). In October 1861, Serrell was appointed lieutenant colonel of the regiment. He was promoted to full colonel in command of the unit in February 1862. The 1st NYVE took part in the 1862 South Carolina campaign, beginning with the expedition to Port Royal, October 21 to November 7, 1861. Serrell served as chief engineer of the 10th Corps and of the Army of the James, and also served as chief of staff of the Army of the James as a brevet brigadier general. While at Port Royal, General Ormsby Mitchell, commanding the 10th Corps, became interested in the possibilities of aerial reconnaissance. Serrell demonstrated a wind-up toy helicopter to Mitchell, and proposed building a full sized flying machine. Mitchell died soon thereafter, but Serrell later demonstrated in 1864 an improved toy to Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding the Army of the James. Serrell's toy helicopter reached an altitude of over one hundred feet. Butler ordered Serrell to build a full-sized machine. Moving to New York, and with funding provided by wealthy oilmen, Serrell designed a fifty-two foot cigar-shaped craft, equipped with a high-pressure steam boiler and "gliding planes" (wings), and four "fans" -- two for lift and two for propulsion. The rear fan was designed to swivel, thus serving as a vectored thrust propeller. The craft, variously called the Valomotive and the Reconoiterer, was assembled in Hoboken, New Jersey. Serrell contacted with the firm of Bennett and Risley of New York City to build a powerful but light steam engine; the design and construction of their engine was delayed until the Confederate surrender in April 1865 ended Army interest in Serrell's project, though he continued to work on the project into 1866. After the war, Serrell worked as a consulting engineer to many corporations, and served as president of the Washington County Railroad. Edward Wellman Serrell died on April 25, 1906, at Rossville on Staten Island, New York.