The Story of the Wright Brothers and Samuel Pierpont Langley
16 January, 2024
In the dawn of the 20th century, the quest to conquer the skies was akin to a modern space race. The central figures in this drama were the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, and a distinguished figure, Samuel Pierpont Langley.
In the quiet town of Dayton, Ohio, two brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, embarked on a journey that would reshape history. Far from the academic halls and scientific societies, these self-taught engineers, running a modest bicycle shop, began their quest to unlock the secrets of flight. Unlike Samuel Pierpont Langley, who had access to the best resources and the brightest minds, the Wright brothers relied on their intuition, mechanical skills, and unyielding determination.
Wilbur once said, "I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man."
Their journey was fueled by this belief and a profound understanding of the principles of aerodynamics, which they studied intensely. The brothers built and tested numerous gliders, learning from each failure, steadily moving towards their groundbreaking invention. Their approach was meticulous and grounded in empirical evidence, a stark contrast to the more theoretical approaches of their contemporaries.
Samuel Pierpont Langley, an esteemed figure in the scientific community, was the antithesis of the Wright brothers. As the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and a professor of astronomy, Langley had the backing of the American government, with a grant of $50,000 (a substantial sum at the time) and $20,000 from the Smithsonian to develop a piloted airplane. His project, named the Aerodrome, was a symbol of American scientific progress.
To put in context how much was $70,000 in 1898,
Real Estate: Could buy multiple city houses or a large luxury estate.
Business Investment: Sufficient to start a major business or fund several startups.
Luxury Goods: Afforded a lifestyle with high-end clothing, jewelry, and travel.
Industrial Projects: Funded substantial industrial endeavors, like factories or railroads.
Salary Comparison: Equivalent to over a century's earnings for an average worker.
Inflation Adjustment: Comparable to several million dollars in today's currency.
Langley's confidence in his project was evident. He was quoted saying, "The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years." Despite his skepticism about the practicality of flight, he believed strongly in his own project's success. The public and the press were captivated by Langley's stature and his project's grandeur, overshadowing the efforts of the Wright brothers.
The Wright brothers' journey was marked by trial and error, a testament to their resilience and ingenuity. While Langley relied on theory, the Wrights focused on practice. They built a wind tunnel in their workshop, through which they tested over 200 wing designs. This hands-on approach allowed them to understand the nuances of flight control and aerodynamics.
If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.
Orville Wright once remarked, "If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance." This philosophy drove them to challenge existing theories and to invent the three-axis control system, crucial for the maneuvering of an aircraft. This system became the standard for all future airplanes, a testament to their innovative spirit.
As the Wright brothers continued their experiments, Langley's project faced setbacks. The Aerodrome failed twice during public tests, falling into the Potomac River. These failures, combined with the Wright brothers' quiet but steady progress, began to shift the narrative.
Langley, aware of the Wright brothers' efforts, dismissed them due to their lack of formal training and scientific background. He maintained a facade of superiority, while internally, his confidence was shaken by the brothers' advancements. The press, too, began to question Langley's capabilities, as the Wrights' successes, though not widely publicized, started to surface in aviation circles.
December 17, 1903, marked a pivotal moment in human history. On this day, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers achieved the first controlled, powered flight. The Flyer, their aircraft, stayed airborne for 12 seconds, covering a distance of 120 feet. This monumental achievement, however, was initially met with skepticism and little fanfare.
The Wright brothers, undeterred by the lack of immediate recognition, knew they had achieved something extraordinary. Orville Wright later reflected, "The airplane stays up because it doesn't have the time to fall." Their success was a culmination of years of perseverance, a stark contrast to Langley's high-profile yet unsuccessful endeavors.
Samuel Langley's Aerodrome project, once the darling of the American government and the scientific community, became a symbol of failure. His two public attempts at flight, both ending in crashes, severely damaged his reputation. The press, which once hailed him as a pioneer, now questioned his capabilities.
Langley, faced with the Wright brothers' success, struggled to regain his standing. His earlier dismissals of the Wrights now seemed baseless. He sought to defend his work, but the tide of public opinion had turned. The contrast between his well-funded project and the Wright brothers' grassroots approach became a narrative of scientific hubris versus practical ingenuity.
In the years following the Wright brothers' success, the landscape of aviation changed dramatically. The brothers, once unknown, began to gain recognition and acclaim for their groundbreaking work. Their approach to flight, rooted in practical experimentation and a deep understanding of aerodynamics, became the foundation of modern aviation.
Meanwhile, Langley, in an attempt to salvage his reputation, became more open to collaborations and partnerships. However, the Wright brothers, wary of their past experiences, were hesitant. They had faced skepticism and dismissal from the scientific community, including from Langley, and chose to rely on their own resources and knowledge.
The story of the Wright brothers and Samuel Pierpont Langley is a powerful narrative about perseverance, innovation, and the triumph of the underdog. It teaches us that true breakthroughs often come from unexpected places. The Wright brothers, with their humble beginnings and lack of formal training, changed the world through their dedication and relentless pursuit of knowledge.
Their story is a reminder that success is not solely determined by resources or prestige, but by the courage to pursue a vision and the resilience to overcome challenges. It's a testament to the power of determination and the human spirit's capacity for innovation.