Samuel Langley (1834-1906)

Around 1885, Samuel Langley began to take a keen interest in flight and soon started experimenting with rubber-band powered scale models and gliders

Issue: 6 / 2018By Joseph Noronha

The name Samuel Langley would probably draw a blank stare today. Yet this astrophysicist and aeronautical pioneer from the United States (US), almost succeeded in inventing the aeroplane before the Wright brothers. The Wrights are now universally credited with being the first to achieve sustained flight on a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft controllable in all three axes. They correctly identified controllability as the key to sustained flight. Their first flight in “The Flyer” on December 17, 1903, was with an engine barely able to keep the machine and pilot airborne for a short distance. But the contraption was indisputably controllable. In contrast, Langley felt that power was crucial to keeping an aircraft flying. He succeeded in building an engine about four times as powerful as the Wrights’, but since his aircraft could not be effectively controlled it could in no way sustain itself in flight.

Samuel Pierpont Langley was born on August 22, 1834, in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He was a scientist and inventor from a young age. One of his early contributions to human progress was the development of standard time. Before he entered the scene, the railways in the US were run according to local time, with noon set by the sun. This had obvious safety risks as trains began to speed across the length and breadth of the country. So Langley, from his base at the Allegheny Observatory, began to transmit the correct time twice a day to several hundred railway stations using the telegraph network—an arrangement that worked exceedingly well.

Around 1885, Langley began to take a keen interest in flight and soon started experimenting with rubber-band powered scale models and gliders. In 1890, he founded the prestigious Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) primarily to study the Sun. His position as Secretary of the SAO helped him bring to bear its considerable resources to address the problem of powered flight. He constructed a series of what he called “Aerodromes” (loosely from the Greek “air runner”), each an improvement over the last. Since his craft had no landing gear, he sought safety by launching them with a catapult in calm air off the roof of a houseboat anchored on the Potomac River. The machine could then descend into the water and be recovered, hopefully with little or no damage. Based on his experiments on the forces acting on wings in a moving stream of air he concluded that “mechanical flight is possible with engines we now possess.”

On May 6, 1896, Langley tasted his first major success. Aerodrome No 5, weighing about 11kg, ascended to about 30m and flew under its own power at a speed of 40kmph for about 700m. Later that day, he repeated the feat this time exceeding one km. It was ten times more than any previous powered heavier-thanair flying machine had traversed and more than enough to convince the sceptics that it had flown. It was also the first time a gasoline engine had actually powered an unmanned flying machine. On November 11, 1896, Aerodrome No 6 flew about 1.5km, remaining airborne over a minute. Langley seemed to have achieved what he wanted and wrote, “I have brought to a close the portion of the work which seemed to be specially mine—the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight—and for the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea, it is probable that the world may look to others.” There the matter would have rested.

However, in 1898, Langley received a US War Department grant of $50,000 to build a piloted Aerodrome. He hired Charles Manly as engineer and test pilot. Another five years of effort followed to build a larger and heavier aircraft, capable of taking Manly aloft. Towards the end of September 1903, Langley felt ready to conduct the first sustained, heavier-thanair human flight in history. On October 7, 1903, the Aerodrome was launched from a new and larger houseboat, with Manly at the controls. And straight into the water it went! Manly was fished out, more improvements followed and the next date was December 8, 1903. The reporters were all there to cover what they hoped would be a spectacular demonstration of powered flight. But once again, a problem with the catapult system rather than the craft sent it into the water. The newspapers went to town about “Langley’s Folly”, heaping scorn on his efforts and sharply criticising the waste of public money.

Samuel Langley was deeply disheartened by the failure and the criticism. Despite 18 years of well-funded and unrelenting effort, he was unable to cross the final hurdle which was essential to demonstrate the sustainability of flight. He died on February 27, 1906, a broken and disappointed man. History is not kind to the also-rans, not even to those who were almost the first.