4 n the sixth of May 1896 a steam engine provided with wings made a successful flight in the air over the Potomac River at Quan – tico, Virginia about sixty miles from Washington, D. C. There was no man in the machine, yet it pursued its way steadily through the air, continually rising until its power gave out, when its propeller stopped and it descended so gently to the water that it was immediately ready for another flight.
The second flight was equally successful, and though the total distance was not great, barely exceeding one half mile, it succeeded in demonstrating to the world the practicability of mechanical flight by machines heavier than the air and driven by their own motive power.
The production of this machine was really the culminating point of the researches of the late Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Samuel Pierpoint Langley, and the Smithsonian Institution very properly celebrates the sixth of May as “Langley Day.”
For many years before 1896 Professor Langley, being assured in his own mind of the practicability of mechanical flight had devoted
himself to scientific experiments with aeroplanes, that is, with flat surfaces or planes driven edgeways through the air, at varying angles of incidence to the horizon. In his usage the aeroplanes, while applicable to the wings of a flying machine, was not applicable to the machine itself. The machine as a whole he called an aerodrome, from the Greek work aerodromos, “traversing the air.” In the terminology employed by him aerodromics is the art of traversing the air— the art of aerial locomotion; and an aerodrome was a machine for traversing the air.
The knowledge that so eminent a man as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, believed in the possibility of mechanical flight and was carrying on scientific experiments to attain that end, proved a great stimulus and encouragement to many less eminent men who were working along the same lines under the discouragement and ridicule from the incredulous world… I was the only witness of this remarkable flight outside of the workmen employed. I may perhaps be pardoned for saying a few words about it. Professor Langley had met with so many failures that, though hopeful, he was somewhat doubtful of the
result, and he invited me to witness the experiment on the condition that I was the only man he knew whom he could bear to be a witness of a failure.
I found a houseboat containing all his apparatus anchored in the little Bay of Quantico and, on the roof, his machine was arranged ready to be shot off by a huge catapult. It was a huge model, thirteen feet from tip to tip, . . . and sixteen feet from head to tail, the whole propelled by a wonderfully light steam engine of Professor Langley’s own design.
I had a boy row me out on the bay where I thought I could get a good snapshot of the machine when it leaped into the air, while Professor Langley, too nervous to be close to the scene of operations, retreated to the shore, and I saw him standing lonely on the end of a little pier with the wooded shore behind him.
Then the whirr of the propellers was heard and the catapult was released causing the machine to shoot out into the air almost horizontally. Then came the critical moment. Would it fall into the water? Would it strike against the trees that surrounded the bay? Or would it ascend and clear them? The queries were soon answered. For the huge bird-like machine gracefully soared from twenty to thirty feet above the tops of the trees, turning slightly as it rose, and made a beautiful flight of over half-a-mile, when the steam was exhausted the propellers stopped and it began to come down.
The descent was as fascinating as the ascent, and it glided gracefully to the surface of the water. The workmen employed hailed the success of the experiment with loud cheers, in which I joined. It was picked up and found to be practically uninjured except for a wetting. The experiment was then repeated with even greater success than before.
The prophecy received its fulfillment but not until the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1898 the Board of Ordinance & Fortification, after carefully studying the flight of 1896, appropriated $50,000 to enable Langley to experiment with a full sized aerodrome carrying a man. This was not completed until 1903, and on August 8 of that year a quarter-sized model of it propelled by a gasoline engine made a beautiful public flight.
On September 7, 1903, the full-sized aerodrome, carrying Mr. F. W. Manley, as aviator, was tried on the Potomac, but when the catapult was released, the aerodrome sped along the track on the top of the houseboat attaining sufficient headway for normal flight; but at the end of the rails it was jerked violently down at the front, and plunged headlong into the river. It was subsequently discovered that the guy post that strengthened the front pair of wings had caught in the launching ways, and bent so much that those wings lost all support.
A second launching was attempted on the Potomac River near Washington, on December 8, 1903. This time the rear guy post was injured, crippling the rear wings, so that the aerodrome pitched up in front and plunged over backwards into the water. Fortunately the aviator, Mr. Manly, received no injury in either case.
It will thus be seen that Langley’s aerodrome was never successfully launched, so that it had no opportunity of showing what it could do in the air. The defect lay in the launching mechanism employed and not in the machine itself, which is recognized by all experts as a perfectly good flying machine, excellently constructed and made long before the appearance of other machines.
Langley’s efforts at aviation were received with public ridicule, and he found it impossible to obtain the necessary funds to try the experiment again. Professor Langley was of a very sensitive nature and the public ridicule with which his efforts were received had a good deal to do with the illness which caused his death. Not very long after the accident he received a paralytic stroke, and after partially recovering from this, another stroke ended his life in 1906. . . .
The second and last trial of Langley’s aerodrome occurred December 8, 1903, and on December 17 of that same year, the Wright brothers made their first flight in their gliding machine provided with a 16 HP engine and two screw propellers. Little or nothing was known of this flight by the general public. The Wright brothers removed their machine to Dayton, Ohio. During 1904 and 1905 numerous flights were made in Dayton, Ohio, culminating in a flight of eleven miles on September 26, 1905. These were all in secret. After this, field practice with them ceased for more than two years to enable them to preserve the secrecy which they had hitherto maintained.
A few statements concerning their success leaked out into the public press, but were generally received with incredulity and unbelief.
A competent scientific investigator was sent from France to Dayton, Ohio to investigate the truth of the rumors that had appeared in the newspapers of success that had found their way into the press. He was unable to obtain any definite information concerning the trials that had been made, but by interviewing the neighboring farmers he was able to satisfy himself that flights had actually been made, and so reported to his principals in France, and it was from France that America received the first authentic news that the Wright brothers had actually flown.
Then M. Archdeacon stirred up the patriotic spirit of the French, not to be beaten by America, and offered his prize… of FF3000 to be awarded to the first person who should sail or fly twenty-five meters, under certain conditions.
The whole art of aerial locomotion originated in France. In 1783, the Montgolfiers produced the balloon, their hot air balloon, and in the same year M. Charles and the Brothers Roberts gave us the hydrogen balloon. After the lapse of 100 years, Nadar issued his celebrated manifesto in which he advocated the heavier than air flying machine, rather than the balloon, and started the controversy between the lighter-than-air and the heavier-than-air camps, which has lasted to our day, and is not settled yet. . . .
On August 22, 1906, M. Santos-Dumont made a tentative flight in his new “aeromobile,” and on October 23, 1906 he ran this strange machine swiftly over the ground and glided boldly into the air, flying above the excited spectators at a speed of twenty-five miles an hour, and covering a distance of two hundred feet, thus gaining the Archdeacon Cup.
This was the first public flight in the world, made without any certain knowledge of the previous secret flights made by the Wright brothers in America.
From this time the French have been feverishly active in the field of aviation. In October 1907 the Aerial Experiment Association was organized with the object of constructing a practical aerodrome, driven through the air by its own motive power, and carrying a man. This was a mere experimental association, financed by my wife, and consisting of the late Lt. Selfridge, Mr. F. W. Baldwin, Mr. Glenn H. Curtiss, Mr. J. A. D. McCurdy and myself. On March 12, 1908, the Association succeeded in raising its first aerodrome, the Red Wing, into the air from the ice on Lake Keuka, near Hammondsport, N. Y. Mr. F. W. Baldwin was the aviator on this occasion, which constituted the first public flight of an aerodrome in America. The Wright brothers, of course, had previously flown, but nothing was known with certainty at that time concerning their achievements. Then in that same year, 1908, the Wright brothers for the first time appeared publicly in flight. Wilbur Wright in Europe, and Orville Wright in America, startled the world with their achievements, and proved themselves to be the master of their art. . . .