History Who Really Invented the Airplane Part 2

About the controversy in history over who invented the airplane. A look at the various claims including Samuel P. Langley.




CLEMENT ADER (1841-1925)

Ader kept working to perfect his airplane, and finally, with the financial backing of the French Army, he built Avion III, a flying machine similar in design to the Eole but with a longer wingspan and two four-blade propellers. On Oct. 14, 1897, Ader tested his Avion at Satory with a military observer team present. Ader claimed that that day he had again flown, but three witnesses disagreed with each other about whether Ader actually took off and flew the Avion before it crashed. With the destruction of Avion III, Ader abandoned his career as an aerial inventor and test pilot. He spent a good portion of his last years trying to prove his claims, and he published two books on military aviation before he died at Toulouse in 1925.


Samuel Langley, born in Roxbury, Mass., had a wealthy father who encouraged him to study and to pursue educational hobbies. Langley's childhood love was astronomy, but he eventually chose civil engineering as his occupation. After several years at jobs as a qualified engineer and architect, he changed directions and went back to his study of astronomy and science. He taught mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy, became director of the Allegheny Observatory, and taught physics and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh though he had never earned a college degree. In the late 1880s his studies on the effects of the sun on the weather and wind currents led him to aviation.

Langley was soon experimenting with models, the first of which were powered by rubber bands. When he became the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, he drew on the expertise and knowledge of the technicians and scientists there. The result was the completion of a series of test planes. On May 6, 1896, with his friend Alexander Graham Bell as an observer, Langley sent his Aerodrome Number 5 into the air, launched from a catapult on top of a houseboat in the middle of the Potomac River. This 30-lb. craft with a steam engine flew for 1 min. 20 sec. at an altitude of 70 to 100 ft. for a distance of 3,000 ft. It was the first successful flight of an unmanned heavier-than-air flying machine. Langley's Aerodrome Number 6 had mechanical problems that day, but it flew 4,200 ft. in November of 1896.

In 1898, at President William McKinley's instigation, the U.S. Army awarded Langley $50,000 to develop a plane that would carry a man aloft. In December, 1903, nine days before the Wrights' test at Kitty Hawk, Langley tried out his new gasoline-powered experimental model. A mishap with the catapult caused the airplane to plunge to the bottom of the Potomac, and Langley gave up his experiments after being criticized by the press for the great expense to the taxpayers.

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