George Cayley
Felix du Temple
balloons and airships
Clément Ader
Jean-Marie Le Bris
Butler and Edwards
Jules Henri Giffard
Lawrence Hargrave
Etienne-Jules Marey
Thomas William Moy
Alexandr Mozhaisky
Charles Renard
Victor Tatin
Nikolaj Teleshov
Thomas Walker
John Wise
Richard Pearse
Henson and Stringfellow
Alphonse Penaud
Francis Wenham
Otto Lilienthal
Pilcher and Chanute
Samuel Langley
Horatio Phillips
was Herring the first to fly?

Samuel P. Langley and the Aerodrome

While Chanute’s group was hard at work on the banks of Lake Michigan, America’s other pre- Wright aviation researcher was also closing in on the prize of being the first to fly. Samuel Pierpont Langley was appointed Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887 after a distinguished career as an astronomer and professor of physics at the Western University of Pennsylvania (later called the University of Pittsburgh) and director of the Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh—all without any formal education beyond high school.

Langley was a self-taught scientist whose work displayed the highest standards of scientific rigor yet he was capable of making elementary mistakes and relied heavily on the work of his assistants. At the Allegheny Observatory, Langley built a whirling arm to test airfoils as George Cayley had done, but his machine was driven by a steam engine that whirled an arm seventy feet (21m) long and attained speeds the tip of seventy miles per hour. Once at the Smithsonian, he began building models powered by rubber bands. Realizing the limitation of this kind of power source, he adapted steam engines to the models and tested them carefully on many configurations, leaving behind careful records in his Memoir.

BELOW: Langley s Aerodrome is poised atop a houseboat, ready for Launching, on October 7, 1903. RIGHT: Langley conferred with his assistant, Mathews Manly, days before the test, but was not present for the launch. Assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Cyrus Adler (right) looks

In the period between 1894 and 1896, several large model aircraft that Langley called “Aerodromes” were launched by a catapult device from atop a houseboat on the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. Several test flights were observed by Alexander Graham Bell, himself a flight enthusiast (as we will see later), and by 1896 Langley’s Aerodrome No. 6 made a stable flight of forty two hundred feet in one minute, forty-five seconds, landing gently on the waters of the Potomac.

Glenn Curtiss in a significantly modified version of Langley’s Aerodrome. Curtiss flew the craft on May 28, 1914, in Hammondsport, New York, in an effort to invalidate the Wright patent. Although it seems that several other machines could have flown as much as fifty years earlier, the Wright Flyer was the one that did fly.

Langley was inclined to let the matter rest there, but two events made him press on: America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War, and the rise of Charles Matthews Manly, a recent graduate of Cornell, to the position of Langley’s principal assistant. Hoping to create a military device that would assist the United States in the war President McKinley and the War Department had enticed Langley to Washington with a generous fifty- thousand-dollar grant to develop the airplane. Manly’s contribution of a gasoline engine that weighed 187 pounds (85kg) and produced more than 50 horse-power solved the power plant problem.

Tests on a quarter- scale model in August 1903 were successful. Aware that they were in a race against other experimenters (and pressed by the War Department), Langley and Manly went directly to a full- sized craft, abandoning Langley’s long-established practice of careful, piecemeal experimentation. They constructed a full-scale model, making modifications they could not test, and adapting the catapult mechanism in ways that were, they knew, unpredictable.

Langley was justifiably apprehensive. Manly piloted the Aerodrome on its first test flight on October 7, 1903; the test ended in seconds with the craft falling into the water (“like a handful of mortar,” the Washington Post reported the next day) and Manly having to be fished out. Langley and Manly were not certain what had gone wrong. They reviewed the catapult atop the houseboat and examined the Aerodrome itself, but they could not ascertain what had caused the crash. Ordinarily, Langley would have investigated the matter at length, but he knew that if he did not make a test flight soon he would have to wait until spring, and the War Department was getting impatient. On December 8, another test was run with the same result; this time Manly was just barely rescued.

The reports in the press created a public outcry, and speeches lampooning Langley were delivered on the floor of Congress. (A secretary position at the Smithsonian Institution was looked upon as nearly a cabinet-level post—a kind of Secretary of Education—so that his failure presented a political opportunity to the opposition party.) Langley was deeply hurt by these attacks and withdrew from active research entirely. He died a broken man in February 1906. Throughout his life, Langley blamed the catapult mechanism for the failure of the Aerodrome, but later analysis revealed that many elements of the craft were deeply flawed.

First, the stress on a machine cannot be accurately measured by a smaller model, and simply multiplying the proportions of the model’s dimensions does not result in a structurally sound machine. Langley made no attempt to have a pilot learn the feel of the aircraft in gliding experiments; Manly was not so much a pilot as cargo unable to control the performance of the machine. Also, the idea of bringing a full-sized aircraft to flight speed in just seventy feet (21m) by catapulting it into the air was unsound on the face of it. All these flaws became apparent when, in 1914, Glenn Curtiss borrowed the original Aerodrome, modified it significantly, and flew it over Lake Keuka in New York, all in an effort to challenge the Wright brothers’ patents. The modifications Curtiss made only highlighted the fact that, as originally conceived and constructed, the Aerodrome was not an airworthy craft.

The conflict between the Smithsonian and the Wrights (fuelled by Curtiss) lasted for many years and resulted in the original Wright Flyer’s being exhibited in London rather than in the United States. Not until Orville had passed on in 1948 (the then-Secretary of the Smithsonian having already offered a formal apology acknowledging the priority of the Wrights) was the Flyer returned to the United States and exhibited in the Smithsonian.