Very few people today realize that Samuel P. Langley almost succeeded
with inventing the airplane before the Wright brothers. Who was Langley
and what did he do?
Samuel P. Langley: Aviation Pioneer (Part 1)
by William E. Baxter
Samuel Pierpont Langley was born in 1834 in
Roxbury, Massachusetts. He was the son of Samuel Langley and Mary
Williams; Langley's father was a merchant in Boston. The Langleys
came from old English stock, including the Mather and Adams families.
Langley began his education at the Boston Latin School and was reading
books on astronomy by the age of nine. His brother John helped him
build astronomical instruments and together they experimented with
refractor types. They observed the phases of Venus, craters and
"seas" on the moon, the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and
the rings of Saturn.
He graduated from Boston High School but there was no work in astronomy.
Langley was adept at making and using tools and working with his
hands but he was undecided as to what career path to follow. This
led him west to St. Louis and Chicago to pursue a career in architecture.
He apprenticed to architects and designers in the mid-west and developed
skills in mechanical and free-hand drawing. However architecture
proved to be unrewarding to Langley so he returned to Massachusetts
and got back into making telescopes using the new silver-on-glass
Langley and his brother John were good at their telescope making
work but wanted to learn more. They went on a tour of Europe to
visit museums and other places of learning. Samuel became fluent
in French, something he kept up with for years. Upon returning home,
Langley became an assistant at the Harvard College Observatory.
After about a year, Langley left Harvard to work with the U.S. Naval
Academy as a professor of mathematics but he actually was hired
to restore the operation of the Academy's small observatory. Thus
began Langley's career as an astronomer.
From the Naval Academy, Langley moved to The Western University of
Pennsylvania and the Allegheny Observatory. It was here that Langley
came to a poorly equipped observatory without benefit of a library
or other supporting apparatus. He had to find ways to improve the
observatory but not let this work impinge on his teaching responsibilities
and he had to raise funds to secure the future of the observatory.
His interest in timekeeping continued to develop at this time.
Langley was interested in the problems in keeping time in the mid-19th
Century. There was no concept of "standard time" as we
know it but rather, time was local with noon set by the sun. The
railroads needed accurate and reliable ways to measure time so that
schedules could be maintained. Langley took this situation as an
opportunity for the Allegheny Observatory to help. He published
a pamphlet suggesting that the observatory could establish the correct
time and telegraph this information at intervals to railroad stations.
The Pennsylvania Railroad signed up and Langley began to transmit
the correct time twice per day to the railroad's several hundred
stations. This arrangement proved so successful that soon all sorts
of business signed up, thus bringing financial support to the observatory.
As an astronomer, Langley had an interest in the sun. He spent
many years observing the sun. He attempted to use photography to
document his observations but this proved unsatisfactory at the
time so he had to rely on his training in drawing while he studied
architecture. He observed all manner of phenomena on the sun including
sunspots, prominences, the corona, and the chromosphere.
His observations increased knowledge about the sun. As his work
accumulated information, he believed that this information should
be made available to the public. He wanted everyone to take an interest
in scientific results. He followed this practice by disseminating
information in articles for the non-technical reader and giving
numerous lectures. Yet, his scientific work continued at a strong
pace. He continued his observations of the sun and published his
findings. He was interested in the solar constant (solar energy
reaching the earth) and finding ways to measure it.
His work with the sun led to expeditions to the west to study solar
phenomena, particularly going into high mountains to take measurements.
He remained interested in this work for the remainder of his life.
As in all research, sometimes a new idea takes hold that changes your
focus. With Langley, he became interested on aerodynamics and flying.
Reading the papers of well-known 19th Century figures Cayley, Henson,
Stringfellow, and others, Langley looked at their work and wondered
what he could do in Pennsylvania. Langley began his experiments in
aerodynamics with the same enthusiasm that directed his previous research
In 1887, Langley became the third secretary of the Smithsonian
Institution. During his tenure at the Smithsonian, Langley continued
his research into flying and eventually developed his "aerodrome"
or flying machine. While he had worked on winds, body design, engines,
and so forth, Langley was still well short of a machine that could
be stabilized, steered, and otherwise be controlled in the air.
This was the essence of what he needed to create: a flying machine
that was sustained, self-propelled, controlled, and carried a human.
Langley's aerodrome evolved over time as Langley's experiments taught
him new lessons. Each aerodrome was an improvement upon the previous
one but still, short of his goal. In 1893, he used a houseboat to
launch his latest steam-powered aerodrome considered ready for flight.
But, this flight failed because it was unmanageable in a breeze. Continued
attempts brought no success. His fourth and fifth aerodromes taught
him valuable lessons but also raised more questions. Aerodrome no.
5 rose, then slid back to the water after a flight of a few seconds
and thirty-five feet.
In 1895, work on fine-tuning aerodrome five and building number six
brought Langley closer to his goal. Number five was launched and it
flew. A second launch resulted in another successful flight. It flew
three circles to the left and climbed about sixty feet. But, before
making any announcements, he wanted to test his theories further.
After a trip to Europe, Langley resumed his tests with number six.
This craft flew forty-eight hundred feet in less than two minutes.
He continued to tinker with wing design, tandem wings, engines, and
President McKinley became interested in Langley's work and later a
grant of $50,000 from the War Department enabled Langley to continue
his work on a larger scale. Aerodromes five and six only flew a total
of three times in 1896. He worked on a new launch technique and worked
on a new scale that would accommodate the weight of a man on the aerodrome.
The engines were rebuilt on both aerodromes in 1899. Langley's assistant,
Charles Manley, traveled to Europe to observe engines and reported
that they could build their own engines successfully. Manley proceeded
to do this during 1900. In 1903, after many changes and innovations;
after the construction of a new and larger houseboat; and the expenditure
of almost $70,000, the aerodrome was launched. And into the water
it went. Manley, who was aboard the aerodrome, was rescued from the
river. The aerodrome was demolished when it crashed into the river.
After recovering the aerodrome, refurbishing its engines and airframe,
and building new wings, Langley was ready to try again. With Manley
aboard on a cold early December 1903 day, the aerodrome was launched
from the houseboat. Again, the aerodrome made a crash landing in the
cold river. Langley's aerodrome failed again and Langley would not
try to fly again.
In the mean time, two brothers were in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
working on their own flying machine. After four years of work with
gliders then engines added to gliders, the Wright Brothers flew successfully
on December 17th, 1903; just a few days after Langley's failed attempt.
|Houseboat with overhead launching apparatus
~ image detail
However, did Langley figure out how to fly? Would his aerodrome
work if it were launched a different way? Controversy arose over
these issues in subsequent years. Part 2 will provide answers.