Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) was an astronomer, a pioneer of aeronautical research, and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1887-1906). As a young man, Langley studied civil engineering and pursued this as a career until 1864, when his interest in astronomy led him to positions at the Harvard Observatory, the Naval Academy, the Western University of Pennsylvania and the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh. In 1887, Langley was named Secretary of the Smithsonian, and spent the following years in the research, construction and tests of flying machines. On May 6, 1896, his unpiloted Aerodrome No. 5, powered by a 1hp steam engine, flew nearly three quarters of a mile. This flight surpassed by more than ten times the best efforts of any predecessor. In 1898, at the request of the Army's Board of Ordnance and Fortifications, Langley started work on another design - the Great Aerodrome, also known as Aerodrome A. However, two attempts at launching the aircraft in 1903 failed. In addition to his scientific experiments, Langley's writings include Experiments in Aerodynamics and The Internal Work of the Wind, and the Langley Memoir on Mechanical Flight, published posthumously. Samuel P. Langley died in Aiken, South Carolina, on February 27, 1906.
A Timeline of Early Aeronautical Milestones and Samuel P. Langley's Life and Career
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 feet (3.5 meters), and it flies 131 feet (40 meters) 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.
circa 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.
circa 1865 -- Langley is hired as observatory assistant at the Harvard University Observatory, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
January 1866 -- The Aeronautical Society of Great Britain (later named the Royal Aeronautical Society) is founded.
circa 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.
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 living in Great Britain and 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 support. 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 in 1891.
1890 -- Langley founds 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.
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. Langley's Experiments in Aerodynamics is published by the Smithsonian.
1892 -- Langley's "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" - it falls in the water.
December 7, 1893 -- Second flight of "Aerodrome No. 4" – it 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.
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.
1894 -- Chanute publishes his book Progress in Flying Machines.
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 "Opfer müssen gebracht warden" - "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", also known as "Aerodrome A".
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 "Aerodrome 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.
July 1901 -- The Wrights return to Kitty Hawk with a new biplane glider.
August 1901 -- Langley creates the Children's Room, with exhibits designed to inspire interest in science, technology and natural history, in the Smithsonian Castle.
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. They continue the flights 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 -- Langley's "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" drops 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 activities.
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 (Wilber Wright 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.