SIL Digital LibraryAir & Space Library

Samuel P. Langley: Aviation Pioneer (Part 1)
by William E. Baxter

Title Page
~ image detail ~
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 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 refractors.

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.

Allegheny Observatory
~ image detail ~
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.

Title Page
~ image detail ~
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 interests.

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.

The aerodrome in flight
~ image detail ~
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.

Plan of whirling table
~ image detail ~
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 so forth.

Rubber-pull model aerodrome
~ image detail ~
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.

Houseboat with overhead launching apparatus
~ image detail ~
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.

Hoisting aerodrome to launching track
~ image detail ~
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.

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.

Aerodrome being recovered, October 7, 1903
~ image detail ~
Samuel P. Langley and Charles Manley
~ image detail ~
Flight of aerodrome, October 7, 1903
~ image detail ~

more ...

Smithsonian Institution Libraries On Display

Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Credits | Permissions | Privacy | Copyright