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Lessons from the First Airplane

Lawrence W. Reed

The date is December 17, 2003—the 100th anniversary of the first manned flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a feat engineered by two brothers named Wright. In one century the airplane went from a dream to a multibillion-dollar industry that transports hundreds of millions of people around the globe every year with speed and convenience that would surely astonish Wilbur and Orville today.

Though most Americans know something of that fateful day in 1903, far fewer are aware of the rivalry between the Wright brothers and another inventor/entrepreneur—one Samuel Pierpont Langley. It’s a story that deserves retelling, and there’s no better time to tell it than right now. A hundred summers ago, that rivalry was at a fever pitch, and it wasn’t at all clear at first that the two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, would eventually best the distinguished and better-financed Langley.

By the close of the nineteenth century the possibility of a man-carrying “flying machine” had captivated visionaries in many countries, though the general public regarded the idea as bunk. Nobody knew enough about aerodynamics to build a craft that could generate its own power, get up in the air with a man on board and stay there, and be flown safely and with precision.

In 1878 a simple gift from a father to his two sons—aged 7 and 11—planted the seed that would change history forever. It was a toy helicopter made of cork, bamboo, and paper, and powered by a rubber band. Wilbur and Orville Wright were mesmerized. They built their own copies and versions of it, fostering a lifelong fascination with flight. Twenty-one years later, in 1899, they took time out from their modest bicycle shop to begin the work that would lead to the world’s first successful airplane.

Langley, meantime, was already way ahead of the Wrights. Born in 1834, he earned an international reputation for his work in physics and astronomy and by publishing a book on aerodynamics. He was secretary of the respected Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. As early as 1896, he had even built and flown an unmanned “aerodrome”—a tandem-wing aircraft that used a lightweight steam engine for propulsion. He was sure he would be the man to invent the airplane, and probably deemed it unthinkable that young whippersnappers from small-town America could come out of nowhere with little money and beat him to it.

Both Langley and the Wright brothers had Smithsonian connections but with a huge and perhaps decisive difference. For Langley the Smithsonian was the conduit for a $50,000 federal grant, matched by the Institution, to finance his experiments (equivalent to about a million dollars in today’s purchasing power). As for the Wrights, in 1899 Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian asking for nothing more than a reading list on flight. He and Orville would finance their dream not with government money, but with the nickels and dimes they could scrape from the profits in their private business.

During the summer and fall of 1903 Langley worked feverishly at his Washington home base. Because he felt it safest to fly over water, he spent half his money building a houseboat with a catapult to launch his newest craft with a man, Charles Manly, aboard. A catapult launch meant that the plane would have to go from a dead stop to a flying speed of 60 mph in just 70 feet, a feat that would prove beyond the reach of his craft’s capabilities.

Meanwhile back in Dayton, Wilbur and Orville Wright worked on propeller design, a lightweight engine, and wings that mimicked the way pigeons flew, as the brothers observed them. What they put together solved the problem of controlling flight, which Langley’s craft would never have achieved even if it had taken to the air.

On October 7, 1903, Langley’s plane, with Manly aboard, was ready to go. At least that’s what Langley and Manly thought. But the stress of the catapult launch badly damaged the front wing, and the plane tumbled over and disappeared in 16 feet of water. A reporter present wrote that it flew “like a handful of mortar.” The hapless “pilot” was unharmed.

A second launch set for December 8 proved even more disastrous. The rear wing and tail collapsed at the moment of launch, and the plane dove right into the icy Potomac River. This time poor Manly nearly drowned. Financially, for both Langley and American taxpayers, it was a total loss.

Flying Money

Critics went wild. James Tobin, author of To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight (2003), quotes one congressman as saying at the time, “You tell Langley for me that the only thing he ever made fly was Government money.” The War Department concluded that “we are still far from the ultimate goal, and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would still be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility along these lines.”

But just nine days after Langley’s second spectacular flight to the bottom of the Potomac, Wilbur and Orville Wright took turns flying their carefully designed plane for as long as 59 seconds over the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The craft cost them about $1,000. It cost American taxpayers nothing. Within a year, they were making flights of five miles at a time; within two years, they were flying distances of 20 to 25 miles.

In November 1904 the Wrights offered to sell planes to the War Department. They weren’t seeking a subsidy; they wanted to sell planes for military reconnaissance and communication. But they received the same form-letter refusal that the War Department routinely sent to “flying machine” cranks.

Now what on earth could be the lesson in this remarkable story? Could it be that government, as some argue, is more farsighted than the private sector and therefore subsidies are needed to spur new inventions? Or that government quickly sees the error of its ways and corrects its mistakes? Or that the pursuit of profit just adds another layer of cost and makes new inventions more expensive than necessary?

If you think any of those “lessons” apply, then the textbooks you’ve been reading belong right where Samuel Pierpont Langley’s plane landed.

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