Collection organization Aeronautical Staff
A Timeline of Samuel P. Langley's Life and Career

A Timeline of Samuel P. Langley's Life and Career

Aeronautical milestones by other experimenters are featured in boldface.
August 22, 1834 Samuel Pierpont Langley born to Samuel Langley and Mary Sumner Williams Langley in Roxbury Massachusetts.
1843 William Henson and John Stringfellow publish their design for the Aeriel, a steam-powered "Aerial Steam Carriage".
1845 Langley begins to attend the Boston Latin School.
1847 Henson tests a model of his aircraft.
1848 Stringfellow and Henson build and test a steam powered model aircraft. It has a wingspan of 10 ft (3.5 m), and it flies 40 meters (131 feet) before crashing into a wall.
1849 Sir George Cayley tests a towed triplane glider. In one test, it flies several yards with a local boy as a passenger.
1851 Langley graduates from the Boston High School; begins work as an apprentice with a Boston architect.
c.1852 - 1864 Langley works for architectural and engineering firms in St. Louis and Chicago.
1853 Cayley's coachman flies a glider across Brompton Dale, Yorkshire. The coachman resigns his position after the flight.

Cayley conceives the rubber band-powered model airplane.

Michel Loup designs a powered twin propeller monoplane with a wheeled undercarriage.
1853 - 1854 L C. Letur tests his parachute-glider design. Letur is killed in a test flight in 1854.
1855 Joseph Pline coins the word "aeroplane" to describe a propeller-driven dirigible.
1857 Jean-Marie Le Bris, a sea captain inspired by the flight of the albatross, builds a glider he names the Albatros Artificiel and makes two short hops, breaking his leg in the second.

Félix du Temple, a French naval officer, flies a clockwork model aircraft - the first sustained powered flights by a heavier-than-air machine.
1862 Gabriel de la Landelle coins the word aviation, and later, aviateur - aviator.
1864 Langley returns to Roxbury. He begins work, with his younger brother John, on a five foot focal length telescope, which they complete over three years.
1864 - 1865 Samuel and John Langley tour Europe.
c.1865 Langley is hired as observatory assistant at the Harvard University Observatory, Cambridge, MA.
January, 1866 The Aeronautical Society of Great Britain (later named the Royal Aeronautical Society) is founded.
c.1866 Langley is hired as assistant professor of mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. Duties include restoring the Academy's astronomical observatory to operation.
1867 Langley is named professor of Astronomy and Physics at the Western University of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh. Duties include directorship of the Allegheny Observatory. His tenure at Allegheny will begin his work at the popularization of science through lectures and writing newspaper and journal articles.
1868 Stringfellow builds a model triplane.
1869 Langley proposes a system of standard time distribution via the telegraph to railroads and cities. The Pennsylvania Railroad signs on for the service.

Langley joins a U.S. Coast Survey expedition to Oakland, Kentucky, to observe the August 7th solar eclipse. He observes later eclipses in 1870, 1878, and 1900.
1870 The Allegheny Observatory begins twice-daily time signals to the Pennsylvania Railroad's offices. Other railroads, businesses, and government offices later subscribe to the service. The income from the system aids the operation of the Allegheny Observatory and Langley's research work.

Langley travels to Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, to observe a solar eclipse.
1870 Alphonse Pénaud designs his rubber-powered Hélicoptère.
August 18, 1871 Pénaud demonstrates his Planophore, a rubber-powered model, at the Tuileries, Paris. It flies 40 meters (approximately 131 feet) in 11 seconds.
1871 Francis Wenham designs the first wind tunnel; it is built by John Browning.
1873 Langley makes a detailed drawing of a sun spot. Famous for its accuracy of detail, the drawing is widely reproduced for many years.
1876 Pénaud and Paul Gauchot patent a design for an inherently stable steam-powered full-sized airplane.
1878 Bishop Milton Wright presents a toy based on the Pénaud Hélicoptère to two of his sons - eleven year old Wilbur and seven year old Orville.
1879 - 1880 Langley designs and builds his bolometer for the measurement of the energy of incident electromagnetic radiation.
1879 Victor Tatin designs and flies a compressed air-powered seven foot long model.
1881 Langley organizes an expedition to Mount Whitney in California's Sierra Nevada Range for solar observations and other scientific studies.
1883 Alexandre Goupil builds a bird-shaped unpowered airplane that briefly lifts off in a tethered test while carrying two men.
1884 The U. S. Signal Service publishes Langley's report on the Mount Whitney expedition.
1886 Langley's interest in aeronautics is kindled by a paper on bird flight by a Mr. Lancaster at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Buffalo, New York. Lancaster also describes making small flying models which he describes as "floating planes" and "effigies".
1887 Langley designs and builds his large whirling table at the Allegheny Observatory for the study of aerodynamics; begins aeronautical experimental work. He coins the term Aerodromics for the art of building flying machines from the Greek aerodromoi, which he incorrectly translates as "air running".
January 12, 1887 Langley is appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
April, 1887 Langley begins to build small Pénaud type rubber-powered flying models.
November 18, 1887 Langley is named Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution on the death of Secretary Spencer F. Baird. He retains the directorship of the Allegheny Observatory, dividing his time between Washington and Allegheny until 1891 when James E. Keeler becomes director of the observatory.
1887 Hiram Maxim, an American resident in Great Britain, inventor of the Maxim machine gun, begins work on a large powered biplane test rig.
1888 Langley publishes The New Astronomy.
1889 The National Zoological Park is founded, due to Langley's interest. A site in Washington's Rock Creek Park is selected by Langley and Frederick Law Olmstead. The Zoo becomes part of the Smithsonian in 1890, and is opened 1n 1891.
1890 Langley creates the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; its first home is in a wooden building behind the Smithsonian Castle. In 1955, SAO moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
1890 Clément Ader completes his Éole, a full-sized airplane. It has a fifty foot wing span, and is equipped with a lightweight 20-horsepower steam engine of Ader's design and a four-bladed propeller. At Armainvilliers on October 9, the Éole lifts off the ground to an altitude of approximately one foot and skims the ground for about 50 meters (165 feet). Ader later claims a second flight of 100 meters in September, 1891; there is no evidence for the second flight.
March 28, 1891 First successful flight of one of Langley's rubber-powered models.
1891 Work begins on Langley's Aerodrome No. 0, powered by two small steam engines. Construction is halted before the aircraft is completed.

Langley's Experiments in Aerodynamics is published by the Smithsonian.
1891 Otto Lilienthal, a German mechanical engineer, begins a program of flight research using piloted hang gliders of his own design. He and his brother Gustav will go on to design and build 18 gliders over the next five years, making approximately 2,000 flights.
1892 Aerodrome No. 1 designed and built. Not flown.
1892 - 1893 Aerodrome No. 2 and Aerodrome No. 3 are designed and built. No. 3 is powered by compressed air. Neither is flown.
1893 A 38 foot scow is converted into a houseboat with a workshop and launch platform for Aerodrome testing. In May, it is towed down the Potomac to a point near Quantico, Virginia, off Chopawamsic Island. In November Aerodrome No. 4 is taken to the houseboat for testing.
November 20, 1893 Test flight of Aerodrome No. 4 - falls in the water.
December 7, 1893 Second flight of Aerodrome No. 4 - falls in the water.
July 31, 1894 Maxim's large test rig rises briefly from its support rails during a test run.
August 1-4, 1894 Octave Chanute and Albert Zahm sponsor the Conference on Aerial Navigation in Chicago, bringing together an international assembly of aeronautical researchers.
October, 1894 Test flight of modified Aerodrome No. 4, using improved catapult. Aircraft falls in the water. Aerodrome No. 5, with a one horsepower gasoline burning steam engine, is also tested. It flies 35 feet for three seconds before stalling and falling into the river.
1894 Chanute publishes his book Progress in Flying Machines.
November 12, 1894 Lawrence Hargrave, an Australian researcher, links together four of his box kites, adds a simple seat, and flies to an altitude of 16 feet in the device.
1895 James Means publishes the first of his three Aeronautical Annuals.
May 6, 1896 Aerodrome No. 6 is launched from the houseboat's catapult; the left wing collapses and the aircraft lands in the water. Aerodrome No. 5 is launched at 3:05 PM and flies about half a mile in a minute and a half at an altitude reaching 100 feet - the first sustained flight of a heavier than air apparatus. In a second flight at 5:10, Aerodrome No. 5 makes three circles, climbs to about 60 feet, and is airborne for one minute and thirty-one seconds. The flight is witnessed and photographed by Alexander Graham Bell (box 45, folder 9).
June 1896 Chanute and Augustus Herring establish a camp at the Lake Michigan dunes near Miller, Indiana to conduct flight tests on a number of gliders - several of Chanute's designs, including his multiwing Katydid, Herring's copy of a Lilienthal design, and a Chanute-Herring triplane collaboration.
August 9, 1896 Lilienthal's glider stalls and crashes from an altitude of about 50 feet. Lilienthal dies of his injuries the next morning. His last words are "sacrifices must be made."
November 28, 1896 Aerodrome No. 6 is flown from the houseboat - it flies 4800 feet in one minute and forty-five seconds.
July 1897 Ader completes his Avion III, also known as the Aquilon. It features two 20-horsepower steam engines and twin tractor propellers, and a wingspan of nearly 56 feet. The aircraft weighs approximately 880 pounds. Ader attempts a flight on October 14; Avion III is unable to rise off the ground.
March 25, 1898 Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt suggests the military use of the Langley Aerodrome to Navy Secretary John D. Long (box 40, folder 10).
April 6, 1898 Langley proposes a scaled-up version of the Aerodrome for military use to a joint Army-Navy board meeting at the Smithsonian. He requests $50,000 to build a large, piloted version of his earlier designs. The proposed aircraft is called the Great Aerodrome, or Aerodrome A.
June 1898 Charles M. Manly, a Cornell University engineering student, is hired as Langley's "assistant in charge of experiments."
October 1898 Major work begins on the Great Aerodrome.
December 12, 1898 A contract is signed between Langley and Stephen M. Balzer of New York. Balzer is to design and build a 12 horsepower motor to power the Aerodrome. On the same date, Langley writes to the U.S. Army Board of Ordnance and Fortifications, agreeing to design and build a flying machine. He estimates a cost of $50,000 to build his machine.
May, 1899 A new, larger houseboat equipped with a turntable and catapult is delivered in Washington.
May 30, 1899 Wilbur Wright sends a letter to Langley at the Smithsonian, requesting material pertaining to aeronautical research. He says in his letter that he wishes "... to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work." Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Richard Rathbun directs his staff to assemble a package of papers, including Langley's Story of Experiments in Mechanical Flight and Experiments in Aerodynamics. The Wright brothers receive the package three weeks later. They later credit the material they received from the Smithsonian with giving them a "good understanding of the nature of the problem of flying."
June 7 - August 3, 1899 Additional flights of Aerodromes No. 5 and No. 6 are made from the houseboat at Chopawamsic Island.
July 1899 Langley visits Ader's workshop in Paris.
July, 1899 The Wright Brothers build a five foot biplane kite.
October 2, 1899 Percy Pilcher dies of his injury after his Lilienthal-type glider breaks up in flight.
May, 1900 Langley and the staff of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory observe the May 28 solar eclipse in Wadesboro, North Carolina.
August, 1900 The Wrights begin to build their first glider, a biplane design with a 17 foot wingspan.
September, 1900 The Wrights arrive at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to test their glider on the dunes. They begin test flights in early October.
1901 Langley creates the Children's Room, with exhibits designed to inspire interest in science, technology and natural history, in the Smithsonian Castle.
July, 1901 The Wrights return to Kitty Hawk with a new biplane glider.
Autumn, 1901 The Wright brothers return to Dayton and begin a program to develop their own fundamental aeronautical data, building a wind tunnel and a test rig mounted on a bicycle.
September 19, 1902 The Wrights complete assembly of their new glider and begin flights the same afternoon. And continue through the autumn. After an early crash, continual modifications improve the design. Wilbur writes to his father, "We now believe the flying problem is really nearing its solution." On their return to Dayton, the brothers file a patent on their design.
July 14, 1903 The houseboat is towed down the Potomac to a spot opposite Widewater, Virginia, about 40 miles from Washington.
August 8, 1903 The Quarter-Size Aerodrome makes a successful flight from the houseboat.
September 3, 1903 Work is begun on erecting the Great Aerodrome on the houseboat catapult.
October 7, 1903 The Great Aerodrome, piloted by Manly, is launched by the houseboat catapult at 12:20 PM. The aircraft is snagged by the catapult launch car, and drops into the river. Langley was in Washington, and does not witness the attempt. The wreckage of the Aerodrome is salvaged.
December 8, 1903 The refurbished Great Aerodrome is readied for flight on the houseboat, now moored below Washington at Arsenal Point at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. At 4:45 PM, the aircraft, with Manly at the controls, is launched. The tail assembly drags along the launch track, and the Aerodrome's tail begins to collapse. The Aerodrome falls into the river. Manly is briefly trapped by the wreckage, but cuts himself free and is rescued. In the aftermath of the crash, Langley is ridiculed in the press. Though the Army withdraws its support, Langley receives offers of financial support from businessmen to continue his aeronautical work. He politely refuses these offers and ends his aeronautical work.
December 17, 1903 The Wright brothers make four flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The first flight covered a distance of 120 feet and lasted 12 seconds; in the fourth flight, the Flyer traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds.
June, 1905 The Smithsonian's accountant, W. W. Karr, is accused of embezzling Institutional funds. He is later convicted and imprisoned. Langley holds himself responsible for the loss, and thereafter refuses to accept his salary.
November, 1905 Langley suffers a stroke.
February, 1906 Langley moves to Aiken, South Carolina to convalesce.
February 27, 1906 After suffering another stroke, Langley dies.
March 3, 1906 Samuel Pierpont Langley is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Boston.
May - October, 1914 The Great Aerodrome is refurbished and is tested on Lake Keuka, Hammondsport, New York; the tests are conducted by Glenn Curtiss. Using the Manly-Balzer motor and mounted on pontoons instead of using a catapult launch, the Aerodrome makes several short flights, the longest lasting about five seconds. Later a Curtiss 80-hp engine is substituted for the Manly-Balzer motor and a flight of about 3,000 feet is made on September 17.

The Smithsonian Institution later displays the Aerodrome with an exhibit label that reads "The first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight." This claim causes a rift between the Institution and Orville Wright (Wilbur had died in 1912) that is not fully mended until 1942. The Wright 1903 Flyer is presented to the Smithsonian Institution on December 17, 1948. Today, the Flyer is on exhibit in the Milestones of Flight Gallery of the National Air and Space Museum's Mall building; Samuel Langley's Great Aerodrome is displayed at the Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.


Collection organization Aeronautical Staff
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