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North Side: Pittsburgh's Langley

From The Bulletin Index, 28 December 1933.

Last week, as the U. S. celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Wright brothers' conquest of the air, man's first successful flight on Dec. 17, 1903, a shorter, more bitter feud seemed on its way to settlement. Washington's famed Smithsonian Institute was making cautious advances toward recovering from its musty exile in the Science Museum, London, the Wrights' plan. And a committee of such great names as Charles Augustus Lindbergh was ready to settle down to study the facts of Wrights vs. Samuel Pierpont Langley--who had invented the first flying machine? Now gray and 62, surviving brother Orville Wright was definitely softening the bitter-heartedness that had sent his plane to London. He seemed confident that he would be vindicated, but researchers found much in Langley's favor.

Samuel Langley died broken-hearted in 1908 [sic], three years after his airplane had fouled twice in its launching gear, toppled ignominiously into the Potomac. To newspapers, angry and derisive because they had been prohibited from watching the experiments, Langley could only say: "The machine had never a chance to fly at all." Eleven years after broken-hearted Inventor Langley's death, Aviator Glenn Curtiss was frustrated in his attempts to build a plane because of the Wright patents. He unearthed "Langley's Folly" from the Smithsonian, installed in it a powerful new motor, flew across Lake Cayuga in New York. Unblushingly, Smithsonian officials revised the placard on the plane to read: "Langley Aerdrome. The original Langley Flying Machine of 1903, restored. In the opinion of many competent to judge, this 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. This aircraft slightly antedated the machine designed and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, which, on December 17, 1903, was the first in the history of the world to accomplish sustained free flight under its own power, carrying a man."

Some Pittsburghers still remember brilliant, indefatigable young Dr. Samuel Pierpont Langley, who came here in 1867 as professor of astronomy and physics at Western University of Pennsylvania. He was 32 and unknown. He found his observatory (then situated on Perrysville Hill, and now [1933] used as a hospital for an orphanage) sadly lacking equipment and without money to buy it. No whit abashed, he devised a system of standard time, sold it to railroads for more than $60,000, paid the money out for observatory equipment. In other ways he made his mark here: encouraged John Brashear to begin his famed lens-grinding factory; invented the bolometer, an instrument with which scientists could detect a change of temperature of less than 1/100,000 of a degree centigrade. The drawings he made of sunspots in 1873, before the use of astronomic photography, are still standard illustrations for textbooks.

When the boy Sam Langley lay in his native New England meadows and looked at the sky, he asked himself why, if Nature had solved the problem of flight for birds, man could not do it for himself. In 1885 he set himself to the problem, with Industrialist William Thaw--a great, Medician figure of early Pittsburgh, whose mind and fortune ran into a score of scientific channels--as his financial backer. The tasks before him were stupendous: he had to reduce to useable formulae the facts of air pressure and resistance, locomotion by steam and gasoline engines; he had to hurdle such mathematical formulae as Newton's, that normal pressure varied as to the square of the angle of incidence on an inclined plane.

On the lawn of the Observatory he constructed with the assistance of young William R. Ludewig (now [1933] Pitt engineering professor) and Brother Joseph Ludewig his celebrated "whirling table"--an apparatus resembling a horizontal ladder whirled about like a merry-go-round. At one end was a weight; at the other, a grooved pair of uprights. Stuffed birds--a frigate bird, a condor, an albatross--were wired in the grooves with wings extended. Whirled at 60 m.p.h. they rose from their grooves in similitude of flight. Studying them and various other planes & wheels, Langley laid down his principles of aerodynamics. Interested spectator at many an experiment was young Clifford B. Connelley, now retiring councilman.

Called to head the Smithsonian in 1887, Prof. Langley published there his famed treatise, "Experiments in Dynamics," upon which he could lay basic claim to be "Father of Aviation." As important as his deductions was the fact that a recognized scientist had given attention to a line of investigation most people imagined to be the property of crackpots. Even Orville Wright acknowledged privately: "The knowledge that the head of the most prominent scientific institution in America believed in the possibility of human flight was one of the influences that enabled us to form sane ideas at the outset. It was a helping hand at a critical time, and we shall always be grateful."

From 1891-95 he built four model flying machines, all unsuccessful. Finally, on May 6, 1896, he had his Model 5 ready: a steam-driven, quarter-size aerdrome. If it would fly, the pioneer work was done. With friend Alexander Graham Bell (and his camera) Inventor Langley & assistants went to a secluded spot on the Potomac. At the rocket signal, Aerdrome No. 5 rose without a quiver, flew at 25 m.p.h. for over a minute. Its steam exhausted, it nosed gently down to the water. Months later, No. 6 was flown successfully.

Excited by The Spanish-American War, Congress had appropriated $50,000 to Langley for a war flying machine. The secretiveness of his work engendered newspaper hostility. When his machine fouled in its first flight, the papers were skeptical; when it fouled a second time, they were openly derisive, ridiculed him in cartoon, prose, verse. His money exhausted, broken-hearted Aeronaut Langley could only murmur: "It never had a chance."

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