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Friday, March 20, 2015

Samuel Langley and the Wright Brothers

(Revised 11/26/18)
In an interview by the author John W. Wood with Orville Wright, February 15, 1940, per Wood's hand written notes,
"At Kitty Hawk Chanute (Octave Chanute) had visited the Wrights and being made to obtain the mechanic they wanted Chanute had brought along.  This mechanic, I understood Orville to say, had not proved very satisfactory. They decided to let him go. During the next meal the mechanic said he thought he would return 'by way of Washington'. It flashed through the minds of Wilbur, Orville, and Chanute that the mechanic was planning to go by way of Washington in order to see Langley and tell him of some of the basis of the progress in flying they were making. Chanute spoke up and said he thought he would return 'by way of Washington'- which he did. On reaching Washington Chanute went straight to Langley whom he just caught on the point of leaving Washington, in fact Chanute rode in the carriage with Langley who was on his way to the railroad station. The mechanic sought out Langley but got there too late to see him, so wrote Langley instead, Langley sending the letter (or letters) on to the Wrights. 
Orville said that had Langley lived he and Wilbur would not have had any trouble with the Smithsonian.
Regarding Langley's Aerodrome Orville Wright said (if I remember correctly) it weighed about 17 pounds per horse power while the Wright plane weighed about 60 pounds per horse power. The Aerodrome was structurally weak. The wings of the Aerodrome were flat and not cambered. In the 19 twenties the Wrights had won their patent infringement suit and in an attempt to nullify that decision the Aerodrome had been resurrected and much strengthened and, powered with a more powerful motor, they had tried to obtain sustained flight with it." (1) (John wrote the notes by memory on his return train trip and made two errors. The Aerodrome was resurrected in 1914, not the 1920's. Also, the wings were cambered, not flat.)
Smithsonian Institution
Samuel Langley

Samuel Langley was a man of integrity, and though the information offered by Augustus Herring (the mechanic mentioned above) would have been of value, Langley would have nothing to do with such underhanded transference of the Wright's secrets. Orville recognized this, thus his statement that had Langley not died in 1906, Langley would not have allowed the unethical activities in 1914 by Glen Curtiss- that of making major modifications to the original 1903 Langley Aerodrome to make it capable of flight, and then claiming no such major modifications had been made. This was an attempt by Curtiss to get around the Wright's patents by showing another machine was capable of flight prior to the December 17th, 1903 flights by the brothers. (Also of note- where was Gustave Whitehead during all this? Why no attempt by Gustave to contact Curtiss with the evidence he sought of a flight predating the Wrights? The answer is obvious, but not to historical revisionists of today).
Langley's last attempt at flight occurred on December 8th, 1903, just 9 days before the successful Wright Brother Kitty Hawk flights of December 17th.

Langley Flyer Collapses; Manly Escapes Drowning, December 9, 1903

Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1887-1906, died February 27th, 1906. At a Memorial Meeting held December 3, 1906, Octave Chanute spoke of Langley's contributions to aerial navigation:
"Attempts were made to launch this machine, with C. M. Manly on board, on the 7th of October and on the 8th of December, 1903. Both trials were failures in consequence of a trivial defect in the launching gear. In the first attempt 'the front guy post caught in its support on the launching car and was not released in time to give free flight'; in the second trial the same accident happened to the rear guy post, and the machine was both times more or less wrecked in the launching. As Langely states, 'The machine never had a chance to fly at all, but the failure occurred in the launching ways.' There is no doubt in my own mind that the apparatus would have flown if it had been well launched into the air......(No doubt in Chanute's mind, but there was more to the reason of the craft not flying than just a launching mishap- Matt's note) Meanwhile the funds allotted by the Board of Ordinance had been exhausted and no additional grants were made. Thus was Langley, with success in sight, finally defeated and deprived of the honor which he craved, of being the first to exhibit dynamic man-flight in the air. He was decried and ridiculed, both in prose and verse, his experiments were misrepresented, and he was called a 'professor wandering in his dreams'; so that all his other contributions to science were for a time obscured by a failure due to the trivial defect in his launching gear and by the lack of far-sightedness in our public men.
We all know how this told upon him. There is no doubt that the disappointment shortened his useful life and brought on the attack of paralysis which ended his days.
His lack of success was probably due to the fact that, like Maxim, Ader, Kress, and many others, he undertook too much at once by endeavoring to produce a full-fledged dynamic flying machine ab initio, before making sure of the control, the stability, and the possibility of alighting safely; but he rescued the problem from contempt, he laid the lines which must be followed, and, having published the results of his experiments and given other men data upon which to conquer the air, he will ever be remembered as the precursor and the pathfinder of successful flying-machines."

Smithsonian publication
Smithsonian publication, Samuel Pierpont Langley Memorial Meeting December 3, 1906

The 1914 Smithsonian Annual Report carried the account written by A. F. Zahm titled "The First Man-Carrying Aeroplane Capable of Sustained Free Flight- Langley's Success as a Pioneer in Aviation." The article began the controversy, and the insult, strategically placed directly after Orville Wright's article "Stability of Aeroplanes" in the same publication. Zahm writes "When in March, 1914, Mr. Glen H. Curtiss was invited to send a flying boat to Washington to participate in celebrating "Langley Day," he replied, 'I would like to put the Langley aeroplane itself in the air.' Learning of this remark Secretary Walcott, of the Smithsonian Institution, soon authorized Mr. Curtiss to recanvas the original Langley aeroplane and launch it either under its own propulsive power or with a more recent engine and propeller."

Langley Machine, June 1914, altered by Glen Curtiss and fitted with pontoons.

Lincoln Beachey had requested to put the Langley aeroplane to the test, as reported January 26th, 1914, but Secretary Walcott's response at that time was that he could not see it, except if funds were provided for the building of a duplicate of the machine. The news article of January 26th continued:
"A young officer of the United States Signal Corps volunteered to ride it. (speaking of Charles Manly attempting to fly the Langley Aerodrome in 1903) It had to be launched from a houseboat on the Potomac with the aid of a catapult. As it shot off the boat the tail caught on a nail and the machine and its jockey plunged into the river.
There were no further experiments in the light of later developments it was apparent that it would never have been able to fly without the balancing devices which are the peculiar advance made by the Wrights that made practical aeroplane flying possible.
The Wrights as well as Langley used to say that if you could attach enough power to a kitchen table you could fly...."

January 26, 1914
January 26, 1914 news report of Lincoln Beachey's desire to test Langley Aeroplane

Then, from the Smithsonian Report for 1918, "A Tribute- Samuel Peirpont Langley: Pioneer in Practical Aviation" by Henry Leffmann, the account is repeated, claiming "It (the Langley aerodrome) was overhauled but not materially changed, except to put hydroplane floats on it.... Pointed somewhat across the wind, the machine automatically headed into it, rose to a level poise, soared steadily for 150 feet and landed softly in the water."
And again the statement is repeated "He developed and built the first man-carrying aeroplane capable of sustained free flight."
This article was again published in 1920.

Smithsonian Publication
1920 publication of 1918 report repeating the 1914 claims by the Smithsonian.

In October of 1925, Secretary Walcott "directed that the label of the large Langley machine of 1903 should be altered to read as follows:"

From page 24 of Smithsonian Publication 2977

As the Smithsonian wouldn't recognize the 1903 Wright Flyer as the first man-carrying aeroplane capable of sustained free flight, Orville Wright made the decision to send the craft to England where it would be appreciated. As told by Tom Crouch in "The Bishops Boys":
"Sending the 1903 machine to a foreign museum was a stroke of political genius. Orville's announcement galvanized public attention and put the Smithsonian on the defensive. The world's first airplane was a  national treasure. Ultimately, the National Museum could not allow the craft to remain abroad where it would serve as a perpetual reminder of the controversy."
Paul Laurence Dunbar was correct when he wrote-

"Orville Wright is out of sight
In the printing business. 
No other mind is half so bright
As his'n is."

If sent to the Smithsonian for display, would they also lend this craft out to someone to modify and run experiments?
1928 Publication
September 29, 1928 response by Charles Abbot, Secretary of the Smithsonian, concerning the controversy, in an attempt to "clarify an unfortunate controversy, and to correct errors where errors have been made..." But repeating that the "Langley machine was the first heavier-than-air craft in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight under its own power, carrying a man" did nothing to correct the injustice.

Samuel Langley was innocent of the controversy, having nothing to do with it, as it all occurred years after his death. He did not deserve the ridicule he received by the press and public at the failed launchings of his aerodrome in 1903, ridicule that was really based on the public's belief that the pursuit of mechanical heavier than air flight was futile. The irony in it all, was as Langley received the criticism for the failed attempt at flight, the Wright Brothers would accomplish the task within the week.
James Tobin writes in "To Conquer the Air":
"For a time, Langley bore up pretty well. An old Boston friend said 'his patience and rare philosophy in meeting that phase of his career were among the noblest traits of his character.'...What crumpled his spirit as the months passed was the quiet disdain of his fellow scientists, the only community of equals Langley recognized. Scientists do not conduct their politics as politicians do. Ill will toward Langley, simmering for years, would have been expressed in quiet conversational asides and discreet private letters. John Brashear, his old friend and aide from Pittsburg, found him one day in a state of despair. The secretary took Brashear's hand in both of his and said, 'Brashear, I'm ruined, my life is a failure.' Langley took from his desk two small pieces of steel. They were the pieces that had fouled the launch, he explained- the sole cause of his downfall. Brashear stood helpless as Langley 'cried like a child.' He reminded Langley of his achievements in astronomy, 'but he would not be consoled.'"

In reality, there was more to the failure of the attempts of flight of the Aerodrome in 1903 than simply the two small pieces of steel. But this is what Langley believed, and as Octave Chanute shared in 1906, "There is no doubt that the disappointment shortened his useful life..."
The following is a personal letter written by Samuel Langley in 1901 concerning the death of his mother. At the time this letter was written, the Wright Brothers were at Kitty Hawk making short glides. Octave Chanute had left their camp four days prior. The brothers would leave camp for Dayton on August 22nd. Discouraged, Wilbur had "doubted that we would ever resume our experiments....At this time I made the prediction that men would sometime fly, but that it would not be within our lifetime."

"I feel so much alone in the world, that I turn more eagerly to those few, of whose affection I feel sure.."

The Smithsonian Institution published "The 1914 Tests of the Langley Aerodrome" October 24, 1942, listing the changes made from the 1903 Langley machine to the Hammondsport, 1914 machine. The Institution "accepts Dr. Wright's statement as correct in the point of facts."

Smithsonian Institution publication 3699, The 1914 Tests Of The Langley "Aerodrome". Included in the various changes, the 1903 wing camber of 1/12 was altered to 1/18 in 1914.

Pages 4, 5, of Smithsonian Institution publication 3699, Comparison of 1903 to 1914 Langley Machine

Pages 6, 7, of Smithsonian Publication 3699.

For related information:
The Bishop's Boys, by Tom Crouch, Ch 35, The Smithsonian Feud
To Conquer the Air, by James Tobin- Ch7, Our Turn to Throw
For related posts:

The So-called Smithsonian Contract Controversy

1. From handwritten interview notes of John W. Wood, author of "Airports: Some Elements of Design and Future Development", (published in 1940). John met with Orville at the 15 North Broadway Laboratory, February 15, 1940. He wrote the 8 pages of notes while returning home on the train from Dayton to Buffalo.