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Flying Machines: A History of Early Aviation

Langley’s Aerodrome

Samuel Pierpont Langley

Samuel Pierpont Langley was America’s leading contender to become the inventor of the first successful heavier-than-air flying machine. A noted astronomer with an interest in aeronautics, Langley became the third Secretary of the Smithson Institution in 1887 following the death of Spencer Baird.

Portrait of Samuel P. Langley courtesy of the Library of Congress. Langley had researched aeronautics earlier in his career at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh. Now at the Smithsonian, he continued his research into heavier-than-air flight, and over the next decade built and tested several fixed- winged aerodromes.

Flight of the Aerodrome

Langley’s first successful, unpiloted flight of his aircraft occurred on May 6, 1896. He launched Aerodrome 5 with a catapult from a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. The craft went 3,300 feet at 30 miles per hour powered by a small gasoline engine. A second launch that same day traveled 2,300 feet. Langley made another unpiloted flight in November that traveled nearly 4,700 feet. With these successes, Langley believed that if he had the resources, he would soon be able to build a piloted flying machine.

Calvin Goddard examines a revolver using a helixometer

Calvin Goddard examines a revolver using a helixometer, an instrument he co-invented with colleague, John Fisher. The helixometer utilized a telescope that inserted into a gun barrel to determine whether the weapon had been fired recently, its rifling pattern, and the condition of the barrel. Image source: Goddard, Calvin H. “Who Did The Shooting?” Popular Science, vol. 111, no. 5, 1927, pp. 21-22, 171. View Source

Failure on the Potomac

In 1898, with the aid of his friend, Charles Walcott, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Langley secured funding, including $50,000 from the U.S. War Department, to build a full-scale, piloted flying machine that he named, Aerodrome A. On October 3, 1903, the first flight attempt of Aerodrome A splashed into the Potomac River with Langley’s assistant, Charles Manly, at the controls. A second attempt on December 9 proved equally disastrous with the aircraft breaking apart soon after launch and crashing into the water. Though the pilot was unharmed, public ridicule in the press forever damaged Langley’s aviation dreams. He died three years later without making another flight.

Photo of Aerodrome A in the Potomac River

Langley’s Aerodrome A on the houseboat ready for launch in 1903. The aircraft measured 52 feet in length and sported a 50-foot wingspan. It weighed 750 pounds with a pilot aboard and was powered by a 52-horse-power engine. Photo credit: Manly, Charles. “Langley Memoir on Mechanical Flight: Part II, 1897 to 1903.” Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, vol. 27, no. 3, Smithsonian Institution, 1911. View Source.