Authors: Seth Shulman
Glenn Hammond Curtiss
and the Race
who loves inventing
Let us hope that the advent of a successful flying machine, now only dimly foreseen…will bring nothing but good into the world; that it shall abridge distance, make all parts of the globe accessible, bring men into closer relation with each other, advance civilization, and hasten the promised era in which there shall be nothing but peace and goodwill among all men.
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Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.
EWCOMB, PROMINENT SCIENTIST,
y midafternoon on December 8, 1903, dozens of spectators have gathered on the sunny banks of the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C.
They have come to glimpse the future.
Most have made their way from the city in horse-drawn carriages; some in newfangled motorcars. And now, with overcoats and caps, blankets and field glasses, they huddle against the bitter breeze, chatting excitedly on the riverbank. Scores more have come via the Potomac from nearby wharves, navigating chunks of bobbing ice. They peer from the decks of barges, yachts, and sailboats moored for the unannounced event.
Prominent among the onlookers is a jaunty group of newspaper reporters. Notepads at the ready, they ride the edgy adrenaline of a
big story and busy themselves picking out the faces of prominent members of Washington society: Elihu Root, President Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary of war, is on hand, as is Army General Wallace F. Randolph and other of the nation’s top military brass, scientists, and politicians. Skeptical by trade, the reporters maintain a glib air but, secretly, each recognizes the day’s potential. Possibly—just possibly—they could be ringside for the most momentous spectacle of the young century.
This cold, blustery afternoon, all eyes are trained on a large houseboat in the middle of one of the Potomac’s widest sections, where it converges with the Anacostia River. Pacing back and forth on the deck of the ungainly craft is the unmistakable figure of Samuel Pierpont Langley, venerable head of the Smithsonian Institution, attired for the occasion in a boating cap and woolen overcoat, his neatly trimmed beard shining white in the afternoon sun.
There on deck, Langley notes how gusty the day has become; the squalls have picked up to 18 miles per hour. From Langley’s own account of the day, we know that he is worried as the wind speed rises and the afternoon wears into early evening. But you could never see it in his demeanor. Ever conscious of his role as project director, Langley exudes his usual straight-backed pride and confidence—characteristics sometimes taken for arrogance.
A prominent scientist with an international reputation, Langley is well known by 1903 for his heretical belief that a machine heavier than the air can carry a human being in flight. Yet he has done far more than champion this view. All but abandoning his field of astronomy, Langley has pioneered the embryonic field of “aerial navigation” for fifteen years and published his results widely. Based on the success of Langley’s efforts, the U.S. War Department has secretly funded his five-year effort to build a full-scale prototype of
the extraordinary new machine he calls an
—Greek for “air runner.”
For Langley, today’s trial of a full-scale flying machine caps an illustrious career. Now sixty-nine years old, he can boast of successes in both astronomical and aerodynamic research; he has published hundreds of scholarly articles, and he holds honorary degrees from six universities. As director of the Smithsonian Institution for the past seven years, he has advised two U.S. presidents on scientific matters.
Langley’s long years of experimentation with more than one hundred aircraft models and his emerging grasp of aeronautical principles have led arduously to this December day in 1903. Yet, despite his imposing manner, his credentials, and his official backing, it strains the credulity of the spectators gathered along the Potomac’s banks to believe his machine will actually fly.
No one has ever successfully flown an airplane in all of history.
Perhaps the assembled crowd thinks the laws of nature will be suspended. Just as likely, they are out to gawk at the spectacle, suspecting that the government has foolishly underwritten a powerful man’s idle dream.
From press accounts, official government documents, and the reminiscences of Langley and his colleagues, we know even the sounds and textures of the day’s events: from the roar of the path-breaking radial engine to the gossamer feel of the oiled white silk covering the aerodrome’s skeleton. We know that the houseboat began to pitch as the wind picked up that afternoon. And we know that Langley, meticulous in his attention to detail, had prepared for almost every contingency. He had even contracted with Army surgeon Dr. Francis Nash to join the dignitaries on board the houseboat in case of a medical emergency.
Yet, for all the documentation and detail, two of the most important things about that December day remain elusive. A century later, we can only imagine the spectators’ excitement: the suspense they felt as they stood for hours while Langley and his team readied the odd craft and their bewildered skepticism that, on this very day, a human being might actually unlock the secrets of flight.
Equally baffling, a fair accounting of the event’s outcome is mired in controversy, ill will, and confusion. A century later, it remains one of the most compelling mysteries in the history of aviation. What, exactly, happened that day when one of the world’s most eminent scientists tried to prove that a piloted airplane was possible?
The eighth of December arrived, unusually crisp, clear, and windless. Bad weather and dispiriting setbacks had repeatedly dashed Langley’s hopes of conducting the final test of the new aerodrome and put his project far behind schedule.
Earlier in the fall, at a more remote spot forty miles south along the Potomac in Virginia, the team had attempted a series of mostly incomplete and unsuccessful preliminary trials. Langley favored the river for testing all his prototype aircraft designs. It offered an unobstructed expanse should the aircraft veer in flight; it was, in most spots, relatively shallow, further reducing the chance of losing the models; and, especially important with a human pilot, the water provided a more forgiving landing terrain than did solid ground. At least, that had been the thinking until the Potomac began to ice over.
Langley’s houseboat laboratory was badly damaged in a mid-October storm, and, at the project’s climax, weeks were lost while repairs were undertaken at a dock in Washington. Then, when the
houseboat was finally restored, stormy, wintry weather prevented a definitive final trial of the machine. If these setbacks weren’t enough, Langley later wrote, “more important and more vital was the exhaustion of the financial means for the work.”
Taken together, technical difficulties, winter’s onset, and funding worries have contributed to pervasive uncertainty and pressure for Langley and his coworkers. He knows that this clear December day offers one of the last, best chances to fly the aerodrome for months to come.
With the weather clear and calm throughout the morning, at noon Langley orders the crew to ready the aerodrome for an immediate trial flight. Charles Manly, his assistant and head engineer, will serve as pilot.
Langley’s coworkers have been eager for just such an opportunity. But now there is much to ready and little time. The aerodrome sits in pieces inside the houseboat, and it needs to be carefully bolted together for the trial—a job that takes several hours. And the houseboat needs to be towed out from its dock at the end of Eighth Street in southwest Washington to a clear, wide spot on the Potomac where the flight can take place. Given the lack of notice, though, it is no small matter to commission tugboats for the operation. Finally, two tugboats—the
—are hired for the job, but it is after two-thirty in the afternoon when they pull away from the dock with the large, flat-bottomed houseboat in tow.
For the sake of expediency, Langley decides to make the trial close to the city. This time of year, the Potomac is clear enough of traffic to permit it. Through blocks of floating ice, the two tugboats move downstream to the spot Langley specifies off Arsenal Point.
Because of the late hour, Langley also decides to forgo the task of
mooring the houseboat. Instead, upon reaching their destination, the tugboats continue to run their engines against the current. Long cables from the tugs hold the houseboat moderately steady into a strong and gusty wind.
Throughout the morning, news of the impending flight has spread rapidly through rarefied Washington circles. Now, the spectators on the banks strain to see as the crew atop the houseboat roof struggles to assemble the aerodrome while the craft rolls and sways in the choppy water. The crowd can just make out the crew carefully placing the aircraft’s two sets of wide white wings into position—the tandem-wing design that Langley came to favor from working for years with unmanned models. In between the fore and aft sets of wings are nestled the engine and seat for the pilot. Next, the workers fasten the aerodrome’s Penaud tail: based on the design of the French aviation pioneer Alphonse Penaud, it looks from afar like an oversized version of the feathers on the end of an arrow or dart.
Those spectators with field glasses can clearly see Langley overseeing the affairs on deck, his earnest assistant and today’s brave pilot Manly by his side. They can see Manly, a slight, energetic young engineer, quietly measuring himself against his mentor while excitedly helping to oversee affairs at the zenith of his youthful career. As these two men shuffle about, perhaps a few of the spectators can also make out their serious, even solemn countenance. But their nervousness and sense of urgency remain well hidden.
The two men do not discuss it, but the fact is, Langley and Manly have yet to succeed in their efforts to get the spring-loaded launching catapult atop the houseboat to work, despite numerous trials. Earlier in the fall, a full-blown failure had dumped Manly and the plane directly into the water. Yet they remain confident: they have repeatedly checked the launching mechanism and try to take com
fort in the knowledge that Langley has used a similar method to great effect in his smaller-scale experiments.
In May 1896, for example, Langley successfully launched a thirteen-foot-long steam-powered model he called Aerodrome Model No. 5. This plane soared away from Langley’s houseboat on the Potomac and motored along through the air for more than a half mile.
Far more than an early precursor to a working airplane, Langley’s unmanned Model No. 5 was an unprecedented breakthrough that conclusively proved the viability of self-propelled, heavier-than-air flight. While balloons and dirigibles had successfully flown for some time, these were known, in the parlance of the day, as “lighter-than-air” craft because of their reliance on low-density gas or hot air to become airborne. Langley’s successful flight of Model No. 5 was extraordinarily different and many immediately recognized its import.
Langley’s astonished colleague and friend Alexander Graham Bell (by then already world-famous for his invention of the telephone) witnessed one of Langley’s experiments on the Potomac River. As Bell soon told scientific colleagues, the model plane flew upwind above the Potomac until, exhausting its steam, it landed gently and unharmed on the water. The flight, he said, was “so steady that I think a glass of water on its surface would have remained unspilled.” To Bell, the implications were enormous. No one present, he said, “could have failed to recognize that the practicability of mechanical flight had been demonstrated.”
Through November of 1896, Langley repeated his success with an improved Model No. 6 that could fly up to three-quarters of a mile. And he took great pride in having crossed such a momentous threshold of aviation. As he proudly asserted in
a popular magazine of the day: “This has been done: a ‘flying machine,’ so
long a type for ridicule, has really flown; it has demonstrated its practicability in the only satisfactory way—by actually flying, and by doing this again and again, under conditions which leave no doubt.”
More than seven years before the Wright brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk, Langley’s efforts spurred on the bicycle mechanics to conduct their own experiments. As Orville Wright put it later, Langley’s flights were a key inspiration, emboldening him and Wilbur with the knowledge “that the head of the most prominent scientific institution of America believed in the possibility of human flight.”
Ever the scientist, though, Langley was always more concerned with the laws of aerodynamics than the practical engineering challenges involved in building successful aircraft. Notably, then, he viewed the flights of Aerodrome Model No. 6 as something of an end in themselves. “I have brought to a close the portion of the work which seemed to be specially mine: the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight,” Langley said, after the 1896 trials. “For the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea, it is probable that the world may look to others.”
As it turned out, though, Langley would not leave the practical development of a full-scale flying machine to others because the War Department took careful note of his work. With the sabotage of the battleship USS
in Havana Harbor early in 1898, the United States had entered into the tempest of the Spanish-American War. Suddenly, planners at the War Department’s Board of Ordnance and Fortification saw potential in the flying machine as a tool for military reconnaissance.
On the basis of Langley’s stature and success, the military board, with President William McKinley’s approval, recommended enlisting him on a secret project to develop a full-scale machine. Langley
agreed to the plan. He insisted on independence and requested a budget of $50,000.
With the same methodical determination that had characterized his experiments throughout, Langley immediately set about to enlarge everything he had accomplished so far. Based on his success on the river with unmanned models, Langley decided to build a huge new houseboat that could serve as the base of a redesigned catapult launching pad.
Of course, the project was a hard secret to keep. Langley had widely publicized his earlier work with unmanned aeroplane models, and now he was building the Victorian-era equivalent of an aircraft carrier: 40 feet wide and 60 feet long, it would be large enough to contain the pieces of a full-scale airplane, a well-stocked workshop, and even sleeping quarters for a small staff. As one historical account put it, the hulking barge “easily took rank as the most remarkable thing in the way of marine architecture that had ever been seen on the Potomac.”