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Samuel Pierpont Langley

Samuel Pierpont Langley was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts on August 22, 1834. He was educated in the Boston public schools but taught himself engineering as a young adult. He was expert in astronomy, physics, and aeronautics and contributed to the knowledge of solar phenomena. He is best known for his attempts to build the first heavier-than-air flying machine.

He became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887. It was during his tenure there that he carried out most of his experiments in heavier-than-air flight.


Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906)
Samuel Pierpont Langley

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Langley began with experiments on flying machines that used twisted rubber bands for propulsion. His larger models used steam engines. He had two successful flights in 1896 with models that caught the eye of the U.S. War Department. After receiving financial support from the War Department, he built a full-size flying machine called an Aerodrome that was to be piloted. This vehicle used a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine that was built by Charles Manley and was based on an engine built and tested in 1901 by Stephen Balzer. Unfortunately, Langley devoted too much time to the subject of propulsion and not enough to considering the added stresses that would be placed on a large vehicle that was to carry a human passenger. He attempted twice in 1903 to launch the Aerodrome by catapulting it from the roof of a houseboat anchored in the Potomac River and both attempts failed the aircraft fell apart and plunged into the Potomac.

Langley was severely criticized by the press and Congress for his waste of money. He abandoned the effort and died on February 27, 1906.