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SAMUEL PIERPOINT LANGLEY

 

Langley was an old man when he began the study of aeronautics, or, as he himself might have expressed it, the study of aerodromics, since he persisted in calling the series of machines he built 'Aerodromes,' a word now used only to denote areas devoted to use as landing spaces for flying machines; the Wright Brothers, on the other hand, had the great gift of youth to aid them in their work. Even so it was a great race between Langley, aided by Charles Manly, and Wilbur and Orville Wright, and only the persistent ill-luck which dogged Langley from the start to the finish of his experiments gave victory to his rivals. It has been proved conclusively in these later years of accomplished flight that the machine which Langley launched on the Potomac River in October of 1903 was fully capable of sustained flight, and only the accidents incurred in launching prevented its pilot from being the first man to navigate the air successfully in a power-driven machine.

 

The best account of Langley's work is that diffused throughout a weighty tome issued by the Smithsonian Institution, entitled the Langley Memoir on Mechanical Flight, of which about one-third was written by Langley himself, the remainder being compiled by Charles M. Manly, the engineer responsible for the construction of the first radial aero-engine, and chief assistant to Langley in his experiments. To give a twentieth of the contents of this volume in the present short account of the development of mechanical flight would far exceed the amount of space that can be devoted even to so eminent a man in aeronautics as S. P. Langley, who, apart from his achievement in the construction of a power-driven aeroplane really capable of flight, was a scientist of no mean order, and who brought to the study of aeronautics the skill of the trained investigator allied to the inventive resource of the genius.

 

That genius exemplified the antique saw regarding the infinite capacity for taking pains, for the Langley Memoir shows that as early as 1891 Langley had completed a set of experiments, lasting through years, which proved it possible to construct machines giving such a velocity to inclined surfaces that bodies indefinitely heavier than air could be sustained upon it and propelled through it at high speed. For full account (very full) of these experiments, and of a later series leading up to the construction of a series of 'model aerodromes' capable of flight under power, it is necessary to turn to the bulky memoir of Smithsonian origin.

 

The account of these experiments as given by Langley himself reveals the humility of the true investigator. Concerning them, Langley remarks that, 'Everything here has been done with a view to putting a trial aerodrome successfully in flight within a few years, and thus giving an early demonstration of the only kind which is conclusive in the eyes of the scientific man, as well as of the general public a demonstration that mechanical flight is possible by actually flying. All that has been done has been with an eye principally to this immediate result, and all

the experiments given in this book are to be considered only as approximations to exact truth. All were made with a view, not to some remote future, but to an arrival within the compass of a few years at some result in actual flight that could not be gainsaid or mistaken.'

 

With a series of over thirty rubber-driven models Langley demonstrated the practicability of opposing curved surfaces to the resistance of the air in such a way as to achieve flight, in the early nineties of last century; he then set about finding the motive power which should permit of the construction of larger machines, up to man-carrying size. The internal combustion engine was then an unknown quantity, and he had to turn to steam, finally, as the propulsive energy for his power plant. The chief problem which faced him was that of the relative weight and power of his engine; he harked back to the Stringfellow engine of 1868, which in 1889 came into the possession of the Smithsonian Institution as a historical curiosity. Rightly or wrongly Langley concluded on examination that this engine never had developed and never could develop

more than a tenth of the power attributed to it; consequently he abandoned the idea of copying the Stringfellow design and set about making his own engine.

 

How he overcame the various difficulties that faced him and constructed a steam-engine capable of the task allotted to it forms a story in itself, too long for recital here. His first power-driven aerodrome of model size was begun in November of 1891, the scale of construction being decided with the idea that it should be large enough to carry an automatic steering apparatus which would render the machine capable of maintaining a long and steady flight. The actual weight of the first model far exceeded the theoretical estimate, and Langley found that a constant increase of weight under the exigencies of construction was a feature which could never be altogether eliminated. The machine was made principally of steel, the sustaining surfaces being composed of silk stretched from a steel tube with wooden attachments. The first engines were the oscillating type, but were found deficient in power. This led to the construction of single-acting inverted oscillating engines with high and low pressure cylinders, and with admission and exhaust ports to avoid the complication and weight of eccentric and valves. Boiler and furnace had to be specially designed; an analysis of sustaining surfaces and the settlement of equilibrium while in flight had to be overcome, and then it was possible to set about the construction of the series of model aerodromes and make test of their 'lift.'

 

By the time Langley had advanced sufficiently far to consider it possible to conduct experiments in the open air, even with these models, he had got to his fifth aerodrome, and to the year 1894. Certain tests resulted in failure, which in turn resulted in further modifications of design, mainly of the engines. By February of 1895 Langley reported that under favourable conditions a lift of nearly sixty per cent of the flying weight was secured, but although this was much more than was required for flight, it was decided to postpone trials until two machines were ready for the test. May, 1896, came before actual trials

were made, when one machine proved successful and another, a later design, failed. The difficulty with these models was that of securing a correct angle for launching; Langley records how, on launching one machine, it rose so rapidly that it attained an angle of sixty degrees and then did a tail slide into the water with its engines working at full speed, after advancing nearly forty feet and remaining in the air for about three seconds. Here, Langley found that he had to obtain greater rigidity in his wings, owing to the distortion of the form of wing under pressure, and how he overcame this difficulty constitutes yet another story too long for the telling here.

 

Field trials were first attempted in 1893, and Langley blamed his launching apparatus for their total failure. There was a brief, but at the same time practical, success in model flight in 1894, extending to between six and seven seconds, but this only proved the need for strengthening of the wing. In 1895 there was practically no advance toward the solution of the problem, but the flights of May 6th and November 28th, 1896, were notably successful. A diagram given in Langley's memoir shows the track covered by the aerodrome on these two flights; in the first of them the machine made three complete circles, covering a distance of 3,200 feet; in the second, that of November 28th, the distance covered was 4,200 feet, or about three-quarters of a mile, at a speed of about thirty miles an hour.

 

These achievements meant a good deal; they proved mechanically propelled flight possible. The difference between them and such experiments as were conducted by Clement Ader, Maxim, and others, lay principally in the fact that these latter either did or did not succeed in rising into the air once, and then, either willingly or by compulsion, gave up the quest, while Langley repeated his experiments and thus attained to actual proof of the possibilities of flight. Like these others, however, he decided in 1896 that he would not undertake the construction of a large man-carrying machine. In addition to a multitude of actual duties, which left him practically no time available for original research, he had as an adverse factor fully ten years of disheartening difficulties in connection with his model machines. It was President McKinley who, by requesting Langley to undertake the construction and test of a machine which might finally lead to the development of a flying machine capable of being used in warfare, egged him on to his final experiment. Langley's acceptance of the offer to construct such a machine is contained in a letter addressed from the Smithsonian Institution on December 12th, 1898, to the Board of Ordnance and Fortification of the United States War Department; this letter is of such interest as to render it worthy of reproduction:--

 

'Gentlemen,--In response to your invitation I repeat what I had the honour to say to the Board--that I am willing, with the consent of the Regents of this Institution, to undertake for the Government the further investigation of the subject of the construction of a flying machine on a scale capable of carrying a man, the investigation to include the construction, development and test of such a machine under conditions left as far as practicable in my discretion, it being understood that my services are given to the Government in such time as may not be occupied by the business of the Institution, and without charge.

 

'I have reason to believe that the cost of the construction will come within the sum of $50,000.00, and that not more than one-half of that will be called for in the coming year. 

 

'I entirely agree with what I understand to be the wish of the Board that privacy be observed with regard to the work, and only when it reaches a successful completion shall I wish to make public the fact of its success.

 

'I attach to this a memorandum of my understanding of some points of detail in order to be sure that it is also the understanding of the Board, and I am, gentlemen, with much respect, your obedient servant, S. P. Langley.' 

 

One of the chief problems in connection with the construction of a full-sized apparatus was that of the construction of an engine, for it was realised from the first that a steam power plant for a full-sized machine could only be constructed in such a way as to make it a constant menace to the machine which it was to propel. By this time (1898) the internal combustion engine had so far advanced as to convince Langley that it formed the best power plant available. A contract was made for the delivery of a twelve horse-power engine to weigh not more than a hundred pounds, but this contract was never completed, and it fell to Charles M. Manly to design the five-cylinder radial engine, of which a brief account is included in the section of this work devoted to aero engines, as the power plant for the Langley machine.

 

The history of the years 1899 to 1903 in the Langley series of experiments contains a multitude of detail far beyond the scope of this present study, and of interest mainly to the designer. There were frames, engines, and propellers, to be considered, worked out, and constructed. We are concerned here mainly with the completed machine and its trials. Of these latter it must be remarked that the only two actual field trials which took place resulted in accidents due to the failure of the launching apparatus, and not due to any inherent defect in the machine. It was intended that these two trials should be the first of a series, but the unfortunate accidents, and the fact that no further funds were forthcoming for continuance of experiments, prevented Langley's success, which, had he been free to go through as he intended with his work, would have been certain.

 

The best brief description of the Langley aerodrome in its final form, and of the two attempted trials, is contained in the official report of Major M. M. Macomb of the United States Artillery Corps, which report is here given in full:-- 

REPORT

 

Experiments with working models which were concluded August 8 last having proved the principles and calculations on which the design of the Langley aerodrome was based to be correct, the next step was to apply these principles to the construction of a machine of sufficient size and power to permit the carrying of a man, who could control the motive power and guide its flight, thus pointing the way to attaining the final goal of producing a machine capable of such extensive and precise aerial flight, under normal atmospheric conditions, as to prove of military or commercial utility.

 

Mr C. M. Manly, working under Professor Langley, had, by the summer of 1903, succeeded in completing an engine-driven machine which under favourable atmospheric conditions was expected to carry a man for any time up to half an hour, and to be capable of having its flight directed and controlled by him. 

 

The supporting surface of the wings was ample, and experiment showed the engine capable of supplying more than the necessary motive power. Owing to the necessity of lightness, the weight of the various elements had to be kept at a minimum, and the factor of safety in construction was therefore exceedingly small, so that the machine as a whole was delicate and frail and incapable of sustaining any unusual strain. This defect was to be corrected in later models by utilising data gathered in future experiments under varied conditions.

 

One of the most remarkable results attained was the production of a gasoline engine furnishing over fifty continuous horse-power for a weight of 120 lbs. The aerodrome, as completed and prepared for test, is briefly described by Professor Langley as 'built of steel, weighing complete about 730 lbs., supported by 1,040 feet of sustaining surface, having two propellers driven by a gas engine developing continuously over fifty brake horse-power.' 

 

The appearance of the machine prepared for flight was exceedingly light and graceful, giving an impression to all observers of being capable of successful flight. On October 7 last everything was in readiness, and I witnessed the attempted trial on that day at Widewater, Va. On the Potomac. The engine worked well and the machine was launched at about 12.15 p.m. The trial was unsuccessful because the front guy-post caught in its support on the launching car and was not released in time to give free flight, as was intended, but, on the contrary, caused the front of the machine to be dragged downward, bending the guy-post and making the machine plunge into the water about fifty yards in front of the house-boat. The machine was subsequently recovered and brought back to the house-boat. The engine was uninjured and the frame only slightly damaged, but the four wings and rudder were practically destroyed by the first plunge and subsequent towing back to the house-boat. 

 

This accident necessitated the removal of the house-boat to Washington for the more convenient repair of damages. On December 8 last, between 4 and 5 p.m., another attempt at a trial was made, this time at the junction of the Anacostia with the Potomac, just below Washington Barracks. On this occasion General Randolph and myself represented the Board of Ordnance and Fortification. The launching car was released at 4.45 p.m. being pointed up the Anacostia towards the Navy Yard. My position was on the tug Bartholdi, about 150 feet from and at right angles to the direction of proposed flight. The car was set in motion and the propellers revolved rapidly, the engine working perfectly, but there was something wrong with the launching. The rear guy-post seemed to drag, bringing the rudder down on the launching ways, and a crashing, rending sound, followed by the collapse of the rear wings, showed that the machine had been wrecked in the launching, just how, it was impossible for me to see. The fact remains that the rear wings and rudder were wrecked before the machine was free of the ways. Their collapse deprived the machine of its support in the rear, and it consequently reared up in front under the action of the motor, assumed a vertical position, and then toppled over to the rear, falling into the water a few feet in front of the boat.

 

Mr Manly was pulled out of the wreck uninjured and the wrecked machine was subsequently placed upon the house-boat, and the whole brought back to Washington. From what has been said it will be seen that these unfortunate accidents have prevented any test of the apparatus in free flight, and the claim that an engine-driven, man-carrying aerodrome has been constructed lacks the proof which actual flight alone can give.

 

Having reached the present stage of advancement in its development, it would seem highly desirable, before laying down the investigation, to obtain conclusive proof of the possibility of free flight, not only because there are excellent reasons to hope for success, but because it marks the end of a definite step toward the attainment of the final goal. Just what further procedure is necessary to secure successful flight with the large aerodrome has not yet been decided upon. Professor Langley is understood to have this subject under advisement, and will doubtless inform the Board of his final conclusions as soon as practicable. In the meantime, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, it should be stated that even after a successful test of the present great aerodrome, designed to carry a man, 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 on these lines.--Washington, January 6, 1904.

 

A subsequent report of the Board of ordnance and Fortification to the Secretary of War embodied the principal points in Major Macomb's report, but as early as March 3rd, 1904, the Board came to a similar conclusion to that of the French Ministry of War in respect of Clement Ader's work, stating that it was not 'prepared to make an additional allotment at this time for continuing the work.' This decision was in no small measure due to hostile newspaper criticisms. Langley, in a letter to the press explaining his attitude, stated that he did not wish to make public the results of his work till these were certain, in consequence of which he refused admittance to newspaper representatives, and this attitude produced a hostility which had effect on the United States Congress. An offer was made to commercialise the invention, but Langley steadfastly refused it. Concerning this, Manly remarks that Langley had 'given his time and his best labours to the world without hope of remuneration, and he could not bring himself, at his stage of life, to consent to capitalise his scientific work.'

 

The final trial of the Langley aerodrome was made on December 8th, 1903; nine days later, on December 17th, the Wright Brothers made their first flight in a power-propelled machine, and the conquest of the air was thus achieved. But for the two accidents that spoilt his trials, the honour which fell to the Wright Brothers would, beyond doubt, have been secured by Samuel Pierpoint Langley.

 

 
 
Section 1
The Period of Legend | Early Experiments | Sir George-Thomas | The Middle 19 Century | Wenham Bris & Others | The Age of Giants | Lili & Pilcher | American Gliding Experiments | Not Proven | Samuel Langley | The Wright Brothers | First Year of Conquest | First Flier in England | Rhems and After | The Channel Crossing | London to Manchester | Summary to 1911 | Summa to 1914 | The War Period-I | The War Period-II | Reconstruction | 1919-1920

 

 
Section 2
The Beginnings | Multiplicity of Ideas | Progress on Standardized Lines | The War Period
 

 
Section 3
The Beginning | The First Dirigibles | Santos Dumont | The Military Dirigible | British Airship Design | The Airship Commercially | Kite Balloons
 

 
Section4
The Vertical Type | The Vee Type | The Radial Type | The Rotatory Type | The Horizontal Opposed Engine | The Two Stroke Cycle Engine | Engines of the War Period
 
 
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