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Samuel Langley

Langley, Samuel Pierpont

Enshrined 1963 1834-1906

It may surprise people to know that the bearded and dour Langley loved children. When visiting friends, he would often gather the little ones around him and tell them fairy stories, improvising to please the children. One famous story is of a Washington socialite who attempted on several occasions to talk to him about his scientific experiments. When he refused, the socialite finally asked Langley what he did like to talk about. He quickly replied, “children and fairy stories.”

    In 1891 he published his findings on the study of moving air surfaces.
    In 1896 he built, and successfully flew, a steam driven model 3,000 feet.
    Congress appropriated a grant of $50,000 to build a full-scale aircraft which he named the Aerodrome.
    In 1903 he made two attempts to launch the Aerodrome off the top of a houseboat in the Potomac River, but both times it failed, almost drowning the pilot. It was dubbed “Langley’s Folly” by the press.


Samuel Pierpont Langley made outstanding contributions to aviation through his studies of the air and space, his demonstrations of the practicability of mechanical flight, and his inspirational guidance to others.

Beginning in the 1880s while at the Allegheny Observatory near Pittsburgh, Professor Langley undertook studies of moving surfaces in air, and, following his coming to the Smithsonian Institution as Secretary, his findings were published. His free-flight tests of unmanned model aircraft were climaxed in 1896 by flights of over three quarters of a mile with steam-powered aerodromes and by somewhat shorter flights by the world’s first gasoline-engine, heavier-than-air craft in 1901 and 1903. These flights were followed by unsuccessful efforts to develop a man-carrying “aerodrome” which was powered by a very advanced engine of 52.4 horsepower weighing but 2.8 pounds per horsepower, made largely by Dr. Langley’s assistant, Charles Manly, based on a design by Stephen Balzer.

Dr. Langley’s life-long astrophysical studies of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies, and his development of instruments for measuring their heat, and other characteristics, advanced man’s knowledge of space.

Dr. Samuel Langley died on February 27th, 1906.

For more information on Samuel Langley, you may want to visit these websites:

All Star Network
Aviation History Online Museum
Centennial of Flight