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The Conquest of the Air - Gliders

George Cayley, Samuel Langley, Charles Manly


Langley Aerodrome

Samuel Langley - Aerodrome Glider

While the principle by which the hot air balloon soars and floats was figured out by inventors without much difficulty. The invention of the modern airplane, depended upon the scientific analysis of the anatomy of bird wings and the invention of the internal combustion engine.

George Cayley's Wings

Early experimenters were constructing flying machines based on the studies of George Cayley. In 1796, Cayley made an instrument of whalebone, corks, and feathers, which by the action of two screws of quill feathers, rotating in opposite directions, would rise to the ceiling.

Samuel Langley - Early Life

Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1834, Samuel Langley grew up in Puritan New England. He studied civil engineering and architecture and between the years of 1857 and 1864, in St Louis and Chicago. In 1867, he was appointed director of the Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh. He remained there until 1887, making a name for himself as a world class astronomer. Samuel Langley was then appointed as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. It was about this time at the Smithsonian that Samuel Langley began his experiments in aerodynamics. But the problem of flight had long been a subject of interested speculation with him.

Samuel Langley on His Work & Inspiration

"Nature has made her flying machine in the bird, which is nearly a thousand times as heavy as the air its bulk displaces, and only those who have tried to rival it know how inimitable her work is. I [Samuel Lanley] watched a hawk soaring far up in the blue, and sailing for a long time without any motion of its wings, as though it needed no work to sustain it. How wonderfully easy, too, was its flight! I was brought to think of these things again, and to ask myself whether the problem of artificial flight was really as hopeless and as absurd as it was then thought to be."

Samuel Langley's Challenge

Samuel Langley felt that his primary difficulty was to make a glider light enough and sufficiently strong to support its power source. Other main design difficulties that the inventor faced included: the adjustment of the center of gravity to the center of pressure of the wings, the disposition of the wings themselves, the size of the propellers, and the inclination and number of the blades.

By 1891, Samuel Langley had a glider light enough to fly, but the proper balancing had not been attained. He still sought to find the practical conditions of equilibrium and of horizontal flight.

Samuel Langley - Steam Driven Glider

After many experiments with models Samuel Langley designed an unmanned steam-powered machine which would fly horizontally. It weighed about thirty pounds; it was some sixteen feet in length, with two sets of wings, the pair in front measuring forty feet from tip to tip.

On May 6, 1896, this model was launched over the Potomac River. It flew half a mile in a minute and a half. When its fuel and water gave out, it descended gently to the river's surface. In November of that same year, Samuel Langley launched another model which flew for three-quarters of a mile at a speed of thirty miles an hour. These tests demonstrated the practicability of artificial flight.

Manned Gliders

During the Spanish-American War, President McKinley became interested in having Samuel Langley build a powered flying machine which would have innumerable advantages over the military observation balloon.

The Government provided the funds and Langley took up the problem of a flying machine large enough to carry a man. However, his initial difficulty was finding the right engine, both powerful and light enough for manned flight. The internal combustion engine had just been invented and Langley went to Europe in 1900, to search unsuccessfully for his engine.

Charles Manly

Samuel Langley's assistant, Charles Manly, meanwhile found a builder of engines in America who was willing to make the attempt. However, after two years of waiting for it, the engine proved a failure. Charles Manly had the engine transported to the Smithsonian Institution, where he labored and experimented until he designed a light and powerful gasoline powered engine.

In October, 1903, the test flight was made with Charles Manly aboard the flying machine. The flight failed due to the clumsy launching apparatus. The flying machine was damaged as it moved forward; and when it tried to lift off, it turned over and plunged into the river. The loyal and enthusiastic Charles Manly, was fortunately a good diver and swimmer, dried himself off and gave out a reassuring statement to the crowds and representatives of the press that witnessed the fudged flight.

Second Failure & Heartache

A second well publicized failure occurred in December, 1903, that convinced many people that man was never intended to fly. The newspapers ridiculed Samuel Langley and his flying machine, accusing Langley of wasting public funds. The U.S. Government refused to fund him any further. Samuel Langley, sixty-nine years of age, took this defeat deeply to heart. He passed away three years later.

"Failure in the aerodrome itself, or its engines there has been none; and it is believed that it is at the moment of success, and when the engineering problems have been solved, that a lack of means has prevented a continuance of the work." - Samuel Langley

Continue > Wright Brothers & Manned Flight

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