Langley, Samuel Pierpont

Langley, Samuel Pierpont
b. 22 August 1834 Roxbury, Massachusetts, USA
d. 27 February 1906 Aiken, South Carolina, USA
American scientist who built an unsuccessful aeroplane in 1903, just before the success of the Wright brothers.
Professor Langley was a distinguished mathematician and astronomer who became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (US National Museum) in 1887. He was also interested in aviation and embarked on a programme of experiments with a whirling arm to test wings and with a series of free-flying models. In 1896 one of his steam-powered models made a flight of 4,199 ft (1,280 m): this led to a grant from the Government to subsidize the construction of a manned aeroplane. Langley commissioned Stephen M. Balzer, an automobile engine designer, to build a lightweight aero-engine and appointed his assistant, Charles M.Manly, to oversee the project. After many variations, including rotary and radical designs, two versions of the Balzer-Manly engine were produced, one quarter size and one full size. In August 1903 the small engine powered a model which thus became the first petrol-engined aeroplane to fly. Langley designed his full-size aeroplane (which he called an Aerodrome) with tandem wings and a cruciform tail unit. The Balzer-Manly engine drove two pusher propellers. Manly was to be the pilot as Langley was now almost 70 years old. Most early aviators tested their machines by making tentative hops, but Langley decided to launch his Aerodrome by catapult from the roof of a houseboat on the Potomac river. Two attempts were made and on both occasions the Aerodrome crashed into the river: catapult problems and perhaps a structural weakness were to blame. The second crash occurred on 8 December 1903 and it is ironic that the Wright brothers, with limited funds and no Government support, successfully achieved a manned flight just nine days later. Langley was heartbroken. After his death there followed a strange affair in 1914 when Glenn Curtiss took Langley's Aerodrome, modified it, and tried to prove that but for the faulty catapult it would have flown before the Wrights' Flyer. A brief flight was made with floats instead of the catapult, and it flew rather better after more extensive modifications and a new engine.
1897, Langley Memoir on Mechanical Flight, Part 1, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1911, Part 2.
Further Reading
J.Gordon Vaeth, 1966, Langley: Man of Science and Flight, New York (biography).
Charles H. Gibbs-Smith, 1985, Aviation, London (includes an analysis of Langley's work).
Tom D.Crouch, 1981, A Dream of Wings, New York.
Robert B.Meyer Jr (ed.), 1971, Langley's Aero Engine of 1903, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Annals of Flight, No. 6 (provides details about the engine).

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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