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FreightWaves Classics: Aerodrome No. 5 made history in 1896

An aviation milestone took place on this date in 1896. Near Quantico, Virginia (now the home of the FBI’s Training Academy), Aerodrome No. 5 completed the “first successful flights of an unpiloted, tandem-winged, engine-powered, heavier-than-air model of substantial size.” (“Aerodrome” is a derivative of a Greek phrase that roughly means “air runner.”)

The inventor of Aerodrome No. 5 was Samuel Langley. Using a catapult mounted on the top of a houseboat, Langley launched it twice. The houseboat was floating on the Potomac River; during the first flight, Aerodrome No. 5 flew in a circular pattern for 3,300 feet. Aerodrome No. 5’s second flight was also a circular pattern and it flew approximately 2,300 feet. During both flights the 25-pound model flew at about 25 miles per hour and then landed slowly and gently on the river. 

While these distances are considered very short today, the distance that Aerodrome No. 5 flew “was 10 times longer than any previous experiment with a heavier-than-air flying machine.” Langley’s experiments also demonstrated that “stability and sufficient lift could be achieved in such craft.”

The inventor of the first practical telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, was among those who witnessed the flights. Bell had a strong interest in aeronautics, and it was his recounting of the pioneering flights that was published in the Washington, D.C.-based Evening Star. (It is also his photograph of the flight that is seen above.)

Bell wrote, “[Aerodrome No.5] resembled an enormous bird, soaring in the air with extreme regularity in large curves, sweeping steadily upward in a spiral path, the spirals with a diameter of perhaps 100 yards, until it reached a height of about 100 feet in the air.” Bell also wrote, “No one could have witnessed these experiments without being convinced that the practicability of mechanical flight had been demonstrated.”

Langley began his aviation experiments with gliders that were activated by rubber bands before developing his larger models, which he named aerodromes. They were driven by miniature steam engines, and the “two launches on the Potomac River on May 6, 1896, marked his first real success with aerodromes.” Moreover, they helped move forward research in aeronautics; successful human flight in heavier-than-air airplanes took place within a few years.

Samuel P. Langley. (Photo: public domain)
Samuel P. Langley. (Photo: public domain)

Who was Langley?

Samuel Pierpont Langley (August 22, 1834 – February 27, 1906) was an “aviation pioneer, astronomer and physicist who invented the bolometer.” He served as the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and as a professor of astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was the director of the Allegheny Observatory.

After graduating from high school, Langley became an assistant at the Harvard College Observatory. His next position was at the United States Naval Academy; hired as a professor of mathematics, his primary duty was to restore the Academy’s small observatory. He became the director of the Allegheny Observatory and a professor of astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh in 1867. He remained in that position until 1891 (even after taking the position at the Smithsonian Institution). Langley founded the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. In addition to other honors, he received the Prix Jules Janssen in 1898, which is the highest award of the French astronomical society (Société Astronomique de France).

Commercial time service

While Langley was at the Allegheny Observatory in the late 1860s, he had a major role in the “development of astronomically derived and regulated time distribution services in America through the later half of the 19th century.” His work with railroads is often cited as critical to the establishment of the system of standardized time zones. He was very successful selling accurate time to the Pennsylvania Railroad. At that time, many non-governmental observatories subsidized their research through “time-service sales to regional railroads and the cities they served.” 

A Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive and tender. (Photo:
A Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive and tender. (Photo:

The bolometer

Langley invented the bolometer in 1880. It was initially used for measuring infrared radiation. Since then, bolometers have been used to detect changes in temperature of less than 1/100,000 of a degree Celsius. Langley’s invention became the foundation for measurements of “the amount of solar energy on the Earth.” He also conducted “one of the first attempts to measure the surface temperature of the Moon.” 

Aviation experiments

Langley met the writer Rudyard Kipling in 1902. Kipling wrote about one of Langley’s experiments in his autobiography:

“Through [President Theodore] Roosevelt I met Professor Langley of the Smithsonian, an old man who had designed a model aeroplane driven – for petrol had not yet arrived – by a miniature flash-boiler engine, a marvel of delicate craftsmanship. It flew on trial over two hundred yards, and drowned itself in the waters of the Potomac, which was cause of great mirth and humour to the Press of his country. Langley took it coolly enough and said to me that, though he would never live till then, I should see the aeroplane established.”

Based on the success of his models, Langley received a grant of $50,000 from the War Department and $20,000 from the Smithsonian in 1898. His charge was to develop a piloted airplane. On November 11, 1902, Langley’s aerodrome Number 6 model flew more than 5,000 feet.

Langley (right) and Charles Manly. (Photo: NASA)
Langley (right) and Charles Manly. (Photo: NASA)

Langley hired Charles M. Manly (1876-1927) as his engineer and test pilot. While the full-scale aerodrome was being designed and built, the internal combustion engine was also being built. Manly finished someone else’s design; his engine was much more powerful than the Wright brothers’ first airplane engine (50 hp compared to 12 hp). As it turned out, the aerodrome’s engine was the “project’s main contribution to aviation.” The aerodrome had wire-braced tandem wings (one behind the other). It also had a “Pénaud tail for pitch and yaw control but no roll control, depending instead on the dihedral angle of the wings, as did the models, for maintaining roughly level flight.”

Langley ended his project after two crashes that occurred on take-off on October 7 and December 8, 1903. (The Wright brothers’ first successful flight took place just a few days later, on December 17, 1903.) Newspapers widely reported the failures, and “some members of Congress strongly criticized the project.”

Several years after Langley’s death, the Aerodrome was modified and was successfully flown a few hundred feet in 1914 by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. This was part of an attempt by Curtiss to fight the Wright brothers’ patent, as well as an “effort by the Smithsonian to rescue Langley’s aeronautical reputation.” 

Langley's quarter-scale model aerodrome, which flew on May 6, 1906. (Photo: public domain)
Langley’s quarter-scale model aerodrome, which flew on May 6, 1906. (Photo: public domain)