Aviation History: Langley and the Smithsonian


Aviation and Samuel Langely of the Smithsonian Science Museum

There is a good video on the subject here: Samuel Langley vs. Wright Brothers

Samuel Pierpont Langley 1834 to 1906

Samuel Langley
To say that science played no part in the development of aviation would be futile. During its early development, science incarnate was Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), who showed the world how ‘not’ to fly. In spite of decades of theorising, huge government funding and the backing of the entire scientific community, particularly in the form of the Smithsonian Institution, he failed miserably and became a public laughing stock:

“Needless to say, the Washington critics had a field day. The Brooklyn Eagle quoted Representative Hitchcock as saying, “You tell Langley for me … that the only thing he ever made fly was Government money.” Representative Robinson characterized Langley as “a professor … wandering in his dreams of flight … who was given to building … castles in the air.
The War Department, in its final report on the Langley project, concluded, “We are still far from the ultimate goal, and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would still be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility on these lines.” Eight days after Langley’s spectacular failure, a sturdy, well-designed craft, costing about $1000, struggled into the air in Kitty Hawk, defining for all time the moment when humankind mastered the skies.” The Wright brothers had mastered the art of flight, abandoning the advice of the theoreticians.

Langley’s Aerodrome crashes into the Potomac River

What we see here is a lesson that never seems to be learned by the scientific hierarchy: that providing funding for (or throwing money at) theoretical science rarely pays dividends and that placing theory before practical, physical, experiments is not something to be recommended – the practice continues. Langley’s and other “expert” aeronautical theories were later shown to be in error by the Wright’s practical experimentation.

Again, as in other pages on this site, we see someone who was a total failure in the area for which he is most remembered, elevated to the pinnacle of scientific glorification. Not even a scientist in the accepted modern usage (see below). A clue to his success may be that: “…he became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887. Langley was the founder of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.”

Quote: “Samuel Langley Born in the Boston suburb of Roxbury, Ma.,…  was one of America’s most accomplished scientists. His work as an astronomy, physics, and aeronautics pioneer was highly regarded by the international science community. Ironically though, Langley’s formal education ended at the high school level, but he managed to continue his scientific education in Boston’s numerous libraries.”
Were he around today, he would be considered unqualified and pseudo scientific.

Quote: “Of all the early trail blazers one of the most controversial, and surely one of the most unlucky,…” ???

Langley built hundreds of model aircraft with steel frames, taking the heavier than air concept to its outer limits and eventually to disaster with his manned flights; it had never occurred to him that they would ever need some mechanism for steering!

It’s difficult to classify Langley, but he was, at the end of the day a typical son of the scientific method, to the extent that he attempted to fly on theory alone. His mistake was to believe that theory supercedes practical experimental reality – he put theoretical science before nuts and bolts of engineering. This mistake and others were well taken by the scientific community who these days only theorise about things out of reach and beyond disproof. Things so minute that they cannot be disputed or so far away that they cannot be tested. The experimental tests of relativity using pulsars or the bending of light around galaxies are typical examples of modern science flying on theory. But, no crash into the Potomac in far distant galaxies and no press photographers in starships to record the ignominious failure.

Wright Bros.’ Biplane

Simon Newcomb (1835 – 1909)
On the impossibility of a flying machine:
Newcomb a Canadian-American astronomer and mathematician remarked, “…the construction of an aerial vehicle … which could carry even a single man from place-to-place at pleasure requires the discovery of some new metal or some new force…. In the October 22, 1903 (The same year that the Wright’s were flying) issue of The Independent, Newcomb wrote that even if a man flew he could not stop. “Once he slackens his speed, down he begins to fall. Once he stops, he falls as a dead mass.”

“On the state of astronomy 1888, Simon Newcomb declared: “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.”

“Newcomb was specifically critical of the work of Samuel Pierpont Langley, who claimed that he could build a flying machine powered by a steam engine and whose initial efforts at flight were public failures.”

In 1857, at the suggestion of the director to the Smithsonian Institution, he obtained a position in the American Nautical Almanac Office (situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at that time). http://www.gap-system.org/~history/Biographies/Newcomb.html

Langley, the target of Newcomb’s criticism, was Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887 and the founder of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Simon Newcomb, in his day, was acclaimed one of America’s most accomplished scientists.

Lord Kelvin declared: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” and he was one of Britain’s most accomplished scientists.

It becomes clear that when it comes to predicting the future, or even a few months ahead, the academics have a poor track-record and declarations by them that certain things are impossible are not uncommon today.
The revisionist tale that scientists were unaware of the Wright’s successes does not really hold water. With so many ‘authorities’ denying the feasibility of heavier than air flight, no one would have bothered to investigate something that the ‘experts’ had declared impossible. This tendency of those who set themselves up as authorities, to be universally believed, persists to this day, encouraged by other scientists, the media and educators.

Wright Brothers 1903 flyer

New Scientist magazine:
“The number of scientists and engineers who confidently stated that heavier-than-air flight was impossible in the run-up to the Wright brothers’ flight is too large to count.”

The Smithsonian dispute – when things look bad, cheat!
The Smithsonian had determined to show that it was their son Langley who had pioneered the trail to powered flight and set out on a quest to change history, the idea that a pair of bicycle mechanics could upstage a son of science…they got their own bicycle mechanic:

Glenn Hammond Curtiss see: http://aviation-history.com/early/curtiss.htm

“…In an attempt to prove that Samuel P. Langley had invented the first machine capable of sustained flight, the Smithsonian Institution contracted with (Glenn Hammond) Curtiss to verify if Langleys 1903 Aerodrome could fly. The Smithsonian shipped Langleys machine to Hammondsport, where Curtiss and his associates modified it and eventually flew it off of Lake Keuka on May 28 and June 2. The Smithsonian’s witness for these flights, Dr. Albert Zahm, later concluded that the Aerodrome has demonstrated that with its original structure and power, it is capable of flying with a pilot and several hundred pounds of useful load. It is the first aeroplane in the history of the world of which this can truthfully be said.

However, another witness of these flights was Orville Wright’s older brother Lorin. He compiled a long list of Curtisss modifications that, to the Wrights, verified that the plane could not have flown without those changes. In light of the competing claims, Orville Wright and the Smithsonian argued for three decades over who had first invented a flyable plane. By 1943, the two parties had reached an agreement in favor of the Wrights, and the Wright Flyer of 1903 now hangs proudly in the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC recognized as the worlds first powered heavier-than-air flying machine.”

Presentism, or seeing everything from hindsight is a slight of hand that has become an even more popular distraction these days. Academic science criticises past discoveries from the viewpoint of modern knowledge, as if they should have known better because we know now’. The ‘we know now’ often originating from sources other than academic science as in the case of the Wright brothers. Everything becomes so obvious when you are shown the answers and science needs no temptation to claim that it ‘knew about it all along’.

It seems that the Smithsonian had asked Dr. Albert Zahm to procure the services of an aeronautical bicycle mechanic of their own choosing, (Glenn Hammond Curtiss) someone who had an axe of his own to grind – he had tendered contracts to the Wrights and been rejected. See: http://www.aviation-history.com/early/curtiss.htm

Dr. Albert Zahm’s name crops up several times when researching aviation history. He is said to have concocted the myth about Gustave Whitehead’s flights being prior to that of the Wright’s.

“…Instead, Curtiss set about rebuilding Samuel Langley’s Great Aerodrome that had crashed into the Potomac in 1903 to prove that it could have flown before the Wrights.”

The Aerodrome was heavily modified and flown a few hundred feet by Glenn Curtiss in 1914, as part of his attempt to fight the Wright brothers’ patent, and as an effort by the Smithsonian to rescue Langley’s aeronautical reputation. Nevertheless, the courts upheld the patent. However, the Curtiss flights emboldened the Smithsonian to display the Aerodrome in its museum as “the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight”. Fred Howard, extensively documenting the controversy, wrote: “It was a lie pure and simple, but it bore the imprimatur of the venerable Smithsonian and over the years would find its way into magazines, history books, and encyclopedias, much to the annoyance of those familiar with the facts.” (Howard, 1987). The Smithsonian’s action triggered a decades-long feud with the surviving Wright brother, Orville.
See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Pierpont_Langley

The BBC’s Flights of fancy?
Gives various claims for pre- Wright bros. powered flight:
…An article in the Popular Aviation magazine carried eyewitness accounts, of flights in 1898, 1901 and 1902. Experts however, say the story lacks credibility. Some even credit it to the “hoax journalism” trend of the day while others believe the “myth” was perpetuated by Albert Zahm, an arch enemy of the Wright brothers, who was involved in a patent dispute with them. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3307743.stm

“The broken 1903 Wright Flyer is (now) on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The exhibit is labelled with these words”:

DECEMBER 17, 1903

Wiki wimps still support the Smithsonian: “Sir George Cayley, 6th Baronet (1773 1857) was a prolific English engineer and one of the most important people in the history of aeronautics. Many consider him the first true scientific aerial investigator and the first person to understand the underlying principles and forces of flight. Sometimes called the “Father of Aviation”, in 1799 he set forth the concept of the modern aeroplane as a fixed-wing flying machine with separate systems for lift, propulsion, and control…”
It appears that Wiki has now dropped Cayley’s aviation triumphs and decided to make him Australia’s father of botany: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Caley

Other, largely unsupported, contenders for first powered flight are:

Alexander Mozhaiskii or Alexander Fedorovich Mozhayskiy
Clement Ader
Richard Pearse
Lyman Gilmore Jnr.
Preston Watson
Gustave Whitehead

See also:The Smithsonian and the Wright Bros

The Digging Dog

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