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The Race for Flight

A century ago, the Wright Brothers were working hard to develop the first manned flying machine. They weren't the only ones. Over the next months, Weekend Edition Sunday will present a series of profiles on the main rivals to the Wright Brothers in the race for flight.

The most prominent competitor -- and the only one with government funding -- was the secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel Pierpont Langley. NPR's Liane Hansen, host of Weekend Edition Sunday, talks with author James Tobin about Langley's mission. Tobin is author of the new book, To Conquer The Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. He says Langley was obsessed with his place in science history.

At age 50, Langley had already achieved prominence through his work as astronomer, but he wanted to make a discovery on a par with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. So he turned to the problem of flight, spending the 1880s and 1890s perfecting an unmanned flying machine he called an aerodrome.

The craft looked like a giant dragonfly. It was 15 feet long, with two sets of wings and launched by catapult off a houseboat on a river. In 1896, Langley made several successful trials with the machine, and began imagining how a human might fit into the picture.

Of the few serious scientists working on manned flight, Langley was the most eminent. Tobin says Wilbur and Orville Wright were actually inspired by Langley's early work. Anyone who wanted to fly had to solve three problems: lift, balance and power. The Wright Brothers concentrated on balance, using the image of a bird in flight as their model. Langley was focused on power, and the image of an arrow shot through the air: put enough force behind the machine, and it would fly.

"Langley got stuck on this problem of propulsion," Tobin tells Hansen.

In 1903, Langley and his mechanics felt ready to test the aerodrome. On Oct. 7, pilot and chief mechanic Charles Manly climbed aboard the craft, mounted to the top of a houseboat on the Potomac. Reporters swarmed to the site. A catapult launched the aerodrome, and it crashed straight into the river. A reporter said it flew "like a handful of mortar."

Now short on funds, Langley made one more attempt. The December 8, 1903 trial also ended in failure when the aerodrome shot straight up, then plummeted backwards into the water.

"He was humiliated, he was made fun of in Congress," says Tobin. "There was not much question that his sense of destiny was totally shattered in that trial."

Nine days later, on Dec. 17, 1903, in the Kill Devil Hills of North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright made and documented the first successful controlled manned flight in history. The brothers made four flights that day, with the longest lasting 59 seconds and traveling 852 feet.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.