Samuel Pierpont Langley was the Smithsonian’s third Secretary, from 1887 to 1906. Born in 1834 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, he attended the Boston Latin School. He took up "new astrophysics" and was appointed director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He established the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and developed a research program in astrophysics. He also established the standard US time zone system to facilitate train travel, in part to support his research endeavors, and attempted to develop the first flying machine.
The New Astrophysics and Aeronautics
In 1886, Langley was named became Assistant Secretary at the Institution and founded the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. At the observatory, he combined traditional astronomy with the new astrophysics, which focused on studies of the physical workings of the universe using new scientific instruments. Langley, sadly, devoted many years to the development a flying machine that never flew. He spent hours studying the flight of birds and experimented with the physics of air movement. He worked on his “Aerodrome” in a workshop behind the Castle, and attempted to launch it on several occasions, but with no success. He had provided information on aeronautics to young bicycle makers and was crushed when the Wright Brothers were successful at building the world’s first airplane. After his death, his advocates created the Langley/Wright Controversy over who had invented the first machine capable of manned flight, a claim Langley never made, but a controversy that dogged him even in death.
Langley as Secretary
Langley was named the third Secretary after Spencer F. Baird's death in 1887. Introverted and rigid, Langley's management brought mixed reviews. The National Zoological Park opened during his tenure, but he fired its popular founding director William Temple Hornaday. He sought to avoid controversy, suppressing publications, such as anthropologist James Mooney's work on the Ghost Dance. However, this censorship became a controversy in itself, with magazines such as Popular Science attacking him. In 1896, Langley also made an unpopular decision to place employees who were paid from federal appropriations within the Civil Service system. Funding for a new US National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History, was secured during his tenure, and he broke ground for the new facility in 1904. He also designed and built the Children’s Room, a popular exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution Building, the Castle, designed to interest young visitors in museum exhibits. As a "Boston aesthete," Langley was most successful with art museums. He secured a court ruling that the Smithsonian was the "National Art Gallery," entitling the Institution to the Harriet Lane Johnston art bequest, which became a core Smithsonian art collection. At the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, he also pushed the Board of Regents to accept the Charles Lang Freer’s gift of his extensive Asian and American art collection, with funding for a museum.
Langley devoted his career to the development of the new science of astrophysics and the study of mechanized flight. He oversaw the development of new programs at the Institution, construction of a new National Museum building, and establishment of art museums as part of the Smithsonian. His attempts to avoid controversy in turn made him a target of controversy, and he was deeply disappointed by the success of the Wright Brothers before his own inventions succeeded. In addition, the discovery that his trusted assistant, William Karr, had been embezzling from the Institution for years, left Langley a deeply disappointed man, and he died after a stroke in 1906.
- Samuel Pierpont Langley Chronology
- Samuel Pierpont Langley Bibliography
- Images of Samuel Pierpont Langley
- Samuel Pierpont Langley Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Additional Records About Samuel Pierpont Langley Across the Smithsonian
- Langley’s Aerodrome at the National Air and Space Museum
- The Wright Flyer: From Invention to Icon, National Air and Space Museum
- The Wright Brothers, Stories from the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives