Samuel P. Langley and the
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.
Langley s Aerodrome is
poised atop a houseboat, ready for Launching, on
October 7, 1903
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 on.
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.
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 Aerodrome breaks up shortly before crashing into the water
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.