Today, an attempt to rewrite history. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The close of the nineteenth
century found both Samuel Pierpont Langley and the
Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, working hard
and systematically to create powered controllable
flight. Langley had government support and enormous
public exposure. The Wright Brothers worked quietly
using their own resources.
Langley tried to fly on October 7, 1903. His huge
54-foot-long flying machine had two 48-foot wings
-- one in front and one in back. He launched it
from a catapult on the Potomac River. While the
cameras turned, it fell like a sack of cement into
the water. On December 8th he tried again. This
time the rear wing caved in before it got off its
catapult. Only nine days after Langley's second
failure, the Wright Brothers flew a trim little
biplane (with almost no fanfare) at Kitty Hawk,
They succeeded because they'd mastered the problem
of controlling the motion of an airplane in flight.
They'd done four years of careful experimentation
with kites and gliders beforehand.
But governments make interesting bedfellows.
Charles Walcott, a longtime friend of Langley's,
had been influential in funding Langley's work.
Walcott became director of the Smithsonian
Institution in 1906, the same year Langley died. He
immediately set up a Langley medal, a Langley Aero
Lab, and a Langley memorial. In 1914 he hired Glenn
Curtiss to rebuild the Langley Aerodrome and
show that it really could fly. Since Curtiss was
tangled in bitter patent disputes with the Wrights,
that made a poor recipe for objectivity.
Curtiss went to work strengthening the structure,
adding controls, reshaping Langley's plane
aerodynamically, and relocating the center of
gravity. In short, he made it airworthy. He flew it
for 150 feet in 1914. Then he went back and
replaced the old motor as well. On the basis of
Curtiss's work, the Smithsonian honored Langley for
having built the first successful flying machine.
It was 1925 before Orville Wright roused American
sentiment to his cause. What he did was to place
the original airplane -- this American treasure --
in London's Science Museum. Finally, in 1942, the
Secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles Abbot,
authorized publication of an article that clearly
showed how the reconstruction of Langley's
Aerodrome had been rigged.
With that, Orville told the British that his
airplane should be returned to the Smithsonian
Institution after the war. Eleven months after
Orville died in 1948, the famous Wright airplane
came back to America -- back to the Smithsonian,
which had once been such solid Langley turf. Today
the best known biplane that ever flew hangs over a
label giving the Wright Brothers their due.
Today a NASA center, an Army air base, and the CIA
headquarters are all named after Langley. But
that's all right. If Langley didn't win the race,
he was there at the finish line. And Walcott's
attempt to rewrite history hasn't made any of us
forget Kitty Hawk.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds