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One of several Americans to enter the field of aviation prior to the Wright Brother's historic flight was Samuel P. Langley. Langley was an astronomer and the director of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. His major contributions to flight involved attempts at adding a power plant to a glider. In 1896, he successfully built a steam-powered model which flew for three-quarters of a mile before it ran out of fuel. He then set out to build a full-sized, man-carrying aircraft. He received a $50,000 grant from Congress to build this airplane.
One problem Langley encountered was the extremely heavy weight of steam engines. He was convinced that the internal combustion gasoline engine held the greatest promise for a lightweight, powerful engine for aircraft. Charles M. Manly, Langley's assistant, designed such an engine. It was a five-cylinder radial engine which weighed only 125 pounds but produced an amazing 53 horsepower. By October 1903, the engine had been placed in a full-size copy of his successful model, and Langley was ready for flight testing.
The Aerodrome, as Langley called his aircraft, was to be launched by catapult from a barge anchored in the Potomac River. The first flight was conducted on October 7 with Manly at the controls. The Aerodrome left the catapult; however it did not fly and fell into the Potomac. The test was repeated December 8 with exactly the same results. Unfortunately, both attempts were well attended by the press. The reporter's critical writing caused the government to withdraw its support. Langley gave up his project.
Langley made some important contributions to flight, but he spent far too much time on the power plant and too little time on how to control the aircraft once it was flying. However, just nine days after his last failure, the two Wright Brothers, who had approached the problem from just the opposite direction would succeed in powered flight on the sand dunes of North Carolina.
From Aerospace: The Challenge by H. Bacon, M. Schrier, P. McGill, and G. Hellinga, Civil Air Patrol, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, Third Edition 1989.
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Updated: 12 March, 2004