Samuel Pierpont Langley

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Samuel P. Langley (1834–1906) was an astronomer and early aviation experimenter. He made telescopes and observed planets at a young age. After graduating from Boston High School he went to work as a telescope maker and then as an astronomy at Harvard College Observatory, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Western University of Pennsylvania, and Allegheny Observatory. His interests included Sun observations and time standardization, as enabled by astronomy. In 1887 he became secretary of the Smithsonian. From 1887–1895 he worked on successive designs for his heavier-than-air "aerodrome". In 1895 (or 1896?) he conducted two successful trials and received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. War Department. However, over the next decade, his machines could not fly reliably.[1][2]

According to contemporary journalist Mark Sullivan, Langley intended to retire after the trials of 1896 but was prevailed upon to continue by the War Department.[3]

Langley used flat, rather than cambered, aeroplanes in his experiments, partly because he wanted to investigate the physical principles applying to a plane moving through air. (See Francis Herbert Wenham and the revision to Newton's law.) Like Wenham he used a whirling arm to test models. Langley's whirling arm was mounted 8 feet high and surrounded by an octagonal fence; the end of the arm moved at 70mph. Once Langley established his experimental protocol he assigned much of the work to assistants Frank W. Very and Joseph Ludewig.[4]

Aerodrome A broke in 1903 trials, resulting in some scandal and pessimism from the project's backers.[5] The U.S. Artillery Corps reported: "The unfortunate accidents have prevented any test of the apparatus in these flights and the claim that an engine-driven man-carrying aerodrome has been constructed lacks proof, which actual flight alone can give."[6] Langley's assistant Cyrus Adler later said the criticism overwhelmed Langley: "At his years, for he was then nearly seventy, the attitude assumed by the public press broke his spirit at this the first, indeed the only, defeat in his career."[7]

Langley Glider

The fact that Langley was researching aviation encouraged others to take the field seriously. He wrote in Experiments in Aerodynamics (1891): "The mechanical sustenation of heavy bodies in the air, combined with very great speeds, is not only possible, but within the reach of mechanical means we already possess."[8]


  1. William E. Baxter, "Samuel P. Langley: Aviation Pioneer", Smithsonian, 1999?
  2. "Samuel P. Langley collection", Smithsonain (finding aid).
  3. Sullivan, 1927, Our Times, p. 558.
  4. Crouch, 1981, pp. 47–52.
  5. Hallion, 2003, pp. 155–156. "After the Arsenal Point fiasco, an understandably chastened Federal government refused to make any further appropriations for the Langley effort, and what little military ardor for heavier-than-air flight as had existed noticeably cooled. The final War Department report on the Great Aerodrome dishearteningly concluded: 'The claim that an engine-driven man-carrying Aerodrome has been constructed lacks the proof which actual flight alone can give. . . . We are still far from the ultimate goal, and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would still be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility.' Predictably, Congressional response was quick and damning, chiding the War Department for supporting the project and ridiculing Langley for his obsession with flight. Congressman Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska stated, 'The only thing [Langley] ever made fly was Government money.'"
  6. Guggenheim, 1930, The Seven Skies, pp. 39–40.
  7. Adler, 1907, Samuel Pierpont Langley, p. 20.
  8. Randers-Pehrson, 1944, p. 312. "The fact that Langley, an internationally famous scientist, engaged in aeronautical research, was a great encouragement to aviation enthusiasts. It helped to make flying machine experiments a respectable pursuit, not necessarily indicative of an unbalanced mind."


Names Samuel Pierpont Langley; Samuel Langley; Professor Langley; Langley
Birth date 1834-08-22
Death date 1906-02-27
Countries US
Locations Boston, Massachusetts; Pittsburgh; Washington DC
Occupations astronomer, director, aviation experimenter, scientist
Tech areas Wings, Lift, Aeroplane
Affiliations Smithsonian Institution, University of Pittsburgh, War Department, American Philosophical Society, Royal Society
Wikidata id Q357961

Publications by or about Samuel Pierpont Langley

Letters sent by Samuel Pierpont Langley

Letters received by Samuel Pierpont Langley