Getting Your Due, Samuel Pierpont Langley

How I came face to face with the strenuous efforts of key Smithsonian leaders to move U.S. aviation forward at the turn of the twentieth century, stirring up controversy and somewhat obscuring the accomplishments of Samuel P. Langley, the Smithsonian’s third Secretary.

Black and white image of man seated. It can be so frustrating to put great effort into something, and then to have your work and achievements called into question. I can't begin to imagine how frustrated Samuel Pierpont Langley was in 1903. By that time, he had spent over forty years studying astrophysics and aerodynamics.  His work on astronomically-derived time measurement in the late 1860's is the heart of the Standard Time Zones today. He created the bolometer to measure infrared radiation in 1878. His many accomplishments in the advancement of science are often obscured by his efforts in aviation.

 In 1887, Langley became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian, an organization dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge. He founded the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1888. Shortly thereafter, in the midst of administering the rapidly expanding Smithsonian, Langley began intensely pursuing the problem of flight. He conducted progressive experiments testing potential applications. He was deeply invested in proving that man could use engine-propelled vehicles for sustained flight. The U.S. War Department had invested $50,000, and the Smithsonian $20,000, based on his success with earlier models. 

Most of us think of the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, as the first to successfully fly an airplane when a plane of their own design flew on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk. But they were not the only ones chasing this goal, and they were not the first to get experimental airplanes off the ground. What comprised sustained human-controlled flight was, however, a matter of debate. Langley's Aerodrome A had sunk when launched over water on October 7, 1903, and again two months later.  But Langley’s advocates defended his case for years to come.



How did my interest get piqued?

Black and white image of man seated. Like all good mysteries, it has been a roundabout process. The Archives is in the process of digitizing and transcribing the full proceedings of the Board of Regents (the Smithsonian’s governing board) meetings, from 1846 through today. Linked to the Veteran's Day holiday on November 11th, I was preparing Volume 4 of the proceedings for the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Glancing through the minutes, I noticed something called the Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory showing up in the minutes from 1913 through 1915. It turns out Regent Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and Langley's successor Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott had a remarkable interest in reviving Langley's lab and, moreover, in seeing aviation progress deliberately the United States. Definitely not what I expected to find in the meeting minutes of a museum's board.

Both Walcott and Bell were confident that Langley had been short-changed, that his achievements in flight were underappreciated and Langley's 1903 Aerodrome A discredited improperly. At the same time, both men recognized the organized progress other nations were making in the field. Great Britain already had a national board guiding a strategic approach to aviation advances. France, Germany and Russia were also making strides.

Unlike those countries, aviation in the United States was still driven by the individual inventors and aviation pioneers. Bell and Walcott were of one mind, that aviation innovation needed to be fostered, nurtured and given oversight. Resuscitating the Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory would help accomplish the first, but the Smithsonian lacked the funds. Eventually the Regents agreed that Congress should be approached for authorization and sustained funding for the lab. They also agreed that Congress should be lobbied to create a National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). NACA became a federal agency in March, 1915 with Secretary Walcott and Dr. Bell among the founding members. It would remain a federal agency until 1958 when it was replaced with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

But back to Secretary Langley.

From the records of the Board of Regents proceedings, it is clear that Dr. Bell and others placed blame for the Aerodrome crashes on the launching mechanism, not the airplane itself. Another test using Langley's designs for the Aerodrome A flew 150 feet flew in 1914. Dr. Bell attested these results proved that Langley's original Aerodrome a viable flying machine. The questions would be argued over for another 30 years. It came out that many parts of the 1914 Aerodrome alledgedly built by Glenn Curtiss according to Langley’s specifications were not an exact replica. Charles G. Abbott, fifth Secretary of the Smithsonian published an article that detailed the differences, settling the matter in the Wright brothers’ favor.

Yellow cover with black text.

Regardless of the earlier disputes over who was the first to fly, Langley's contributions the advancement of astrophysics and aerodynamics remain highly esteemed today. Among other examples, NASA's Langley Research Center and the Langley unit of solar radiation attest to esteem the science community holds for him.

Panoramic view of buildings.

Related Resources

Related Collections

  • Minutes of the Board of Regents, Volume IV, 1907-1919 (indexed). Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 1, Smithsonian Institution, Board of Regents, Minutes.

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.