17 Feb 12

Sam Langley and the Wright Brothers

Scholar, visionary, and Smithsonian insider, Sam P Langley, whose distinguished academic career had spanned many decades, became interested in manned flight about the same time as the Wright Brothers.

Langley, then in his sixties, experimented with miniature steam-engines to power his aircraft, later defaulting, as the Wright Brothers had, to then-new internal-combustion technology. His pioneering work caught the attention of the US Army, who, in 1898, issued a $50,000 (a fortune in those days) grant to Langley to produce a working, powered aircraft, with a human pilot. The Smithsonian dutifully acquiesced with an additional $20,000.

The Army’s interest was in a durable and flexible battlefield observation platform. Until the advent of Isaac Lewis’ Light Machine Gun in 1909, few would imagine manned, powered aircraft as offensive weapons.

Engineer/designer Charles Manly, who had worked with Langley on the project, volunteered to be the world’s first “test pilot.” And, in 1903, Manley “took off” in Langley’s craft, dubbed the “Aerodrome” (loosely translated from Greek, “Air Runner”). Langley’s demonstration took place just two weeks prior to the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, NC

The Aerodrome had no landing gear and was actually launched via a catapult, sitting atop a houseboat on the Potomac River. The plan was to “land” on water.

However, the Aerodrome unceremoniously crashed on takeoff, plunging, head-first into the water, “like a handful of mortar,” according to local newspapers. A hasty second attempt similarly ended in failure, this time destroying the Aerodrome completely. Manley emerged both times with only superficial injuries, but the press, as expected, made great mockery of the brave experiment, and several members of Congress expressed outrage that federal funds had been so frivolously expended.

In any event, Langley’s experiment was at an ignominious end. Langley himself died barely more than two years later. A decade after his death, Langley’s experiment would generate a bitter feud between the Smithsonian and surviving Wright Brother, Orville.

The real disaster, however, was the Army’s embarrassment and disappointment over this failed project. The result was a nearly complete loss of interest on the part of the Army’s high command in powered, manned aircraft for the next decade, putting the US in a technologically retarded position at the beginning of WWI. Both the British and Germans were far ahead. The US, once again, had to play catch-up!

“You can be bold and risk defeat, or be passive and assure it!”

Poker Players’ Axiom

“Everyone wants “progress,” but no one wants anything to change!”