Birth of Samuel P. Langley

US #C118 pictures Langley with his Aerodrome No. 5 – the first American heavier-than-air machine to make a free flight of any significant length.

Samuel Pierpont Langley was born on August 22, 1834, in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Langley attended the Boston Latin School and English High School of Boston before serving as an assistant at the Harvard College Observatory.  After that, he worked as a professor of mathematics at the US Naval Academy.  While there, he also worked on restoring the school’s small observatory.

In 1867, Langley moved to the Western University of Pennsylvania and became director of the Allegheny Observatory, as well as an astronomy professor.  When he arrived, the observatory was in need of repair and new equipment.  He raised money for the renovations by distributing standard times to the railroads.

US #C118 – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover

Trains ran on a strict schedule.  Engineers and switch operators used their watches to keep track of time, but there was no standard to set the watches to.  Langley used astronomical observations to obtain a precise time and then sent it by telegraph to railroads throughout the US.  This system was the basis for Standard Time Zones.

US #C118 – Fleetwood Plate Block First Day Cover

Langley used the money from the railroads to fund research into the sun.  He produced drawings of solar activity that were published in the US and Europe.  He also invented the bolometer, which measures infrared radiation.  This instrument was used by scientist Svante Arrhenius to demonstrate the greenhouse effect for the first time.

In addition to his work at the observatory, Langley experimented extensively with heavier-than-air aircraft.  By 1887, he was living in and employed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.  He began his experiments with rubber band powered models.  His work advanced to steam engine powered flying machines that he called “Aerodromes” (meaning air runner in Greek).  He built a spinning table, which functioned like a wind tunnel, to test his early models.

US #943 was issued for the 100th anniversary of the Smithsonian.

After many failed flights, Langley achieved success on May 6, 1896.  That day he launched his Aerodrome No. 5 using a catapult attached to the top of a houseboat.  The unpiloted model weighed less than 25 pounds and had a pair of wings at each end of the plane with propellers in the middle.  After a 3,300-foot-long flight (ten times longer than any previous heavier-than-air machine), the Aerodrome landed safely in the Potomac River as planned, because there was no landing gear.

Item #55695 – First Day Proof Card

The War Department took notice of Langley’s aerodromes and gave him a grant of $50,000 to develop an airplane capable of carrying a pilot.  He began this work in 1898 with Charles Manly, who was both an engineer and test pilot.  In 1903, they launched their craft from the catapult.  The plane had no landing gear, so it had to land in the water and be repaired after each flight.  Two flights ended in crashes, and though Manly was not hurt, Langley gave up his attempts at manned flight.  In 1914, Glenn Curtiss continued Langley’s work and developed an aerodrome that flew a few hundred feet.

Samuel Langley paved the way for further development in the fields of aviation and solar radiation.  He died on February 27, 1906, in Aiken, South Carolina.  Several things have been named in his honor, including air and sea craft, a unit of solar radiation, and the Smithsonian’s Langley Gold Medal.  He’s also the namesake of the NASA Langley Research Center (NASA’s oldest field center) as well as Langley Air Force Base.

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  1. “Several things have been named in his honor”.
    The U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier was the USS Langley,
    As the result of enemy action, she was scuttled and sunk on
    27 February 1942.

    (Navy Vet, 1957-1961).

  2. We are so used to thinking that the Wright Brothers invented airplanes, that we forget the significant developments by Langley and Curtis (and many others). Thanks, Mystic, for this . I did not know of Langley’s contribution as an astronomer to “railroad” time and the time zones.

  3. In Germany years ago, I remember reading an account of a flying, steam powered wagon with flapping wings that supposedly was catapulted off the city wall of Ulm, and proceeded over the Danube River in flight As the wagoneer tried to turn, the wagon tipped (nobody knew that the turn side wing will dip in turns), and the wagoneer fell off into the river, with the wagon careening into the river several yards away.

    This was supposedly in 1812 or so, before the War of Liberation against Napoleon, so it might be part of the German Nation mythos building at that time.

    Of course, there is another story of Ulm about long beams of wood being unable to enter the narrow city gate, and sparrows building a nest with long wheat straws successfully by turning them end-on to the hole above the gate, so the people tried turning the beams end-on, too, and it worked. It might be a joke like that about Ulm.

    I have been to Ulm several times, and it is one of my favorite places in Germany, beams or no beaUlm, ms, flying wagons or no flying wagons. The view from the cathedral steeple is tremendous, in any case.

    As the people of Ulm say, “I Uim, ua Uim, ua Uim umi!” (In Ulm, um Ulm, um Ulm herum!), or in English, “In Ulm, around Ulm, around Ulm roundabout!”

  4. The Western University of Pennsylvania became the University of Pittsburgh. Langley K-8 school, what used to be Langley High School, is part of the Pittsburgh Pubic School system.

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