Langley Preservation Project: Thinking Outside the Box

Posted on Tue, September 11, 2012
  • by: Jessica Bulger

In 1887, Samuel Pierpont Langley became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian.  Included among his many accomplishments is his founding of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1890.  His research in the fields of astronomy, physics, and aviation remain a testament to his diverse interests.  While Secretary, Langley took up the challenge of powered flight.  Langley’s efforts evolved from the study of birds in flight and proceeded through experimentation with small rubber band-powered models.  These early research efforts quickly gave way to more advanced experiments utilizing large whirling arms, and far more sophisticated large unpiloted models powered with steam and gasoline engines.  As the series of his Aerodromes (the name coined by Langley for his aircraft) developed from one stage to the next, Langley improved his design.  He had his first successes in 1896 with his unmanned, heavier-than-air Aerodrome No. 5 and No. 6 models.  Following these successes, in 1898, Langley received grants from both the United States War Department and the Smithsonian Institution to develop a full-sized piloted flying machine.  Unfortunately, Langley’s experiments came to an abrupt end with two crashes on take-off of his full-sized Aerodrome on October 7 and December 8, 1903, and the Wright brothers’ successful flight nine days later. Following Langley’s death in 1906, his laboratory and designs became part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection, and care was taken to organize, catalog, and house the collection. This unique collection includes objects from Langley’s research laboratory and remains important due to its rarity and the experimental nature of early powered flight between 1891 and 1903.  Paper, wood, silk, copper, brass, and steel are incorporated into the collection’s variety of propellers, wings, fuselage concepts, engines, and launch platforms.  After preliminary sorting and organization of the material, in the fall of 2011, a Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF) grant sought to formally upgrade the standard of this rare collection’s storage, and to provide valuable documentary information to researchers that was not previously available.  Some of the goals for the re-housing aspect of the project were to provide the collection with adequate or upgraded object supports and housing, and to prepare the collection for its eventual move to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.  Additional goals were to ensure the collection’s survival into the future by  improving documentation and addressing stabilization issues identified in the course of surveying. Based on the diversity of the objects within the collection, we have had to consider innovative solutions in order to accommodate the varying sizes, materials, and conditions of the objects.   Due to the fragility of some objects, consideration was given to the quality of both the materials used and the support systems constructed.  When choosing materials for the re-housing project, we sought out products that are chemically stable, durable, and would not negatively impact the object.  Each artifact has different storage requirements and often calls for custom-made support systems in order to address the needs of the artifact, rather than trying to make the artifact fit a standardized system. Prior to constructing supports and housings, each object underwent a thorough inspection of its current condition and the identification of the safest points to support the object to avoid unnecessary damage during the course of handling and movement.  Archival materials such as ethafoam provide a sturdy support for the object; cushioning materials such as volara were then used to line the foam to provide a surface for the object to rest on. In some cases, a non-abrading surface was incorporated into the construction.  Archival tissue paper was sometimes used between the objects and their supports as an additional separating and buffering layer.  All supports were made of ethafoam carved to conform to the object’s shape and engage various points of contact; heat welding, rather than adhesive was used to cover the foam with volara in order to minimize the use of adhesives within enclosures.  Below are some of the solutions that we have constructed during the project.  

In 2012, the Collections Division of the National Air and Space Museum designed and built custom storage for many objects in the Samuel Pierpont Langley collection. Pictured here: The Langley box wing on a pallet (top); The box wing resting inside drop-front box (bottom).

When considering proper storage for the Box-Wing, forethought was given to the wing’s delicate wooden frame and heavily degrading silk surface. There were few points of contact in which the object could be safely engaged in order to prevent movement, while avoiding areas with delicate silk components.  A set of bumper supports strategically placed prevents movement of the wing horizontally, while the tight fit of the bumper pairs keeps the wing from displacing vertically.  The wing was placed on a two-tiered pallet system within a drop-front box in order to allow for ease of movement of the object without having to handle it directly, while providing a storage area for detached silk fragments beneath the wing, preventing disassociation.  This also served to reduce the footprint of the box’s size in storage.  

In 2012, the Collections Division of the National Air and Space Museum designed and built custom storage for many objects in the Samuel Pierpont Langley Collection. Clockwise from top: the main tank cradle support; secondary tank and tubing cradles; overview of assembly with cradle supports.

The Tank Assembly consists of two copper tanks and associated piping extending in upward and opposite directions. The various sizes of the components of the objects required specialized cradle supports in order to prevent further deformation and damage.  This required individually designed supports of various heights and angles.  Twill tape was then used to mechanically prevent movement out of the cradles.  

In 2012, the Collections Division of the National Air and Space Museum designed and built custom storage for the Langley Boat Model. Clockwise from top left: Langley Boat model in drop-front box with project members for scale; rear cradle support with post for stabilization; front cradle with side walls to prevent movement; overview of lower cavity packing and supports.

When approaching the Boat Model it was realized that a combination of support types was needed in order to accommodate the main assembly of the object as well as the detached components. The model in its current state is unable to support itself.  Due to the large nature of the model, we were also challenged by a limited ability to increase its existing footprint within storage.  These considerations forced us to create an intricate support system that allowed all the pieces to fit together within a set parameter.  The model was stabilized using a combination of cradle and support pieces in order to prevent tilting and shifting of the object.  The front support was a cradle with two ridges to support the edges of the base, minimizing contact with a flaking surface, while the rear support featured a cradle and support post that fit within the rear well on the model and further prevented movement.  In order to minimize the space taken up by the detached elements, a cavity packing method was implemented within the space below the object.  These inlays were specially carved to fit each element and twill tape was used to prevent their vertical movement. The entire ethafoam support system was palletized on a piece of archival blue board to allow for ease of transfer to and from the object’s housing, as well as increase the strength of the support system.   A track was created from ethafoam to help guide the tray into its drop-front housing; the track also locks the tray into place and prevents vertical movement. From the objects we have encountered so far, we have realized the true importance of creating specialized support structures and enclosures that will aid with research access and the survival of the artifact into the future.  When creating supports and enclosures, one must consider what is best for the object and seek out new and innovative systems; we learned you must really “think outside the box.”