The Race for Flight

The Story of Samuel Pierpont Langley and His 'Great Aerodrome'

Samuel Pierpont  Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian

Samuel Pierpont Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian U.S. Air Force hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Air Force
Langley's 'Great Aerodrome' takes a dive into the Potomac.

Langley's "Great Aerodrome" takes a dive into the Potomac. Gary Bradshaw hide caption

itoggle caption Gary Bradshaw
To Conquer The Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight

To Conquer The Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight, by James Tobin. Free Press hide caption

itoggle caption Free Press
Available Online

A century ago, the Wright Brothers were working hard to develop the first manned flying machine. They weren't the only ones. Over the next months, Weekend Edition Sunday will present a series of profiles on the main rivals to the Wright Brothers in the race for flight.

The most prominent competitor — and the only one with government funding — was the secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel Pierpont Langley. NPR's Liane Hansen, host of Weekend Edition Sunday, talks with author James Tobin about Langley's mission. Tobin is author of the new book, To Conquer The Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. He says Langley was obsessed with his place in science history.

At age 50, Langley had already achieved prominence through his work as astronomer, but he wanted to make a discovery on a par with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. So he turned to the problem of flight, spending the 1880s and 1890s perfecting an unmanned flying machine he called an aerodrome.

The craft looked like a giant dragonfly. It was 15 feet long, with two sets of wings and launched by catapult off a houseboat on a river. In 1896, Langley made several successful trials with the machine, and began imagining how a human might fit into the picture.

Of the few serious scientists working on manned flight, Langley was the most eminent. Tobin says Wilbur and Orville Wright were actually inspired by Langley's early work. Anyone who wanted to fly had to solve three problems: lift, balance and power. The Wright Brothers concentrated on balance, using the image of a bird in flight as their model. Langley was focused on power, and the image of an arrow shot through the air: put enough force behind the machine, and it would fly.

"Langley got stuck on this problem of propulsion," Tobin tells Hansen.

In 1903, Langley and his mechanics felt ready to test the aerodrome. On Oct. 7, pilot and chief mechanic Charles Manly climbed aboard the craft, mounted to the top of a houseboat on the Potomac. Reporters swarmed to the site. A catapult launched the aerodrome, and it crashed straight into the river. A reporter said it flew "like a handful of mortar."

Now short on funds, Langley made one more attempt. The December 8, 1903 trial also ended in failure when the aerodrome shot straight up, then plummeted backwards into the water.

"He was humiliated, he was made fun of in Congress," says Tobin. "There was not much question that his sense of destiny was totally shattered in that trial."

Nine days later, on Dec. 17, 1903, in the Kill Devil Hills of North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright made and documented the first successful controlled manned flight in history. The brothers made four flights that day, with the longest lasting 59 seconds and traveling 852 feet.

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