Today, we look at an attempt to rewrite history.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The close of the 19th
century saw Samuel Pierpoint Langley and Orville
and Wilbur Wright laboring to create powered
controlable flight. Langley worked with government
support and enormous public exposure, while the
Wright brothers worked quietly using their own
Langley attempted flight on October 7th, 1903. His
huge 54-foot-long flying machine had two 48-foot
wings -- one in front and one in back. It was
launched from a catapult on the Potomac River, and
it fell like a sack of cement into the water. On
December 8th he tried again. This time the rear
wing caved in before it got off its catapult.
Just nine days later, the Wright brothers flew a
trim little biplane, with almost no fanfare, at
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Their advantage was
that they'd mastered the problem of controlling the
movement of their plane, and they'd preceded their
work with four years of careful experimentation
with kites and gliders.
But the government makes an interesting bedfellow.
Charles Walcott, a long-time friend of Langley's
who'd been influential in funding his work, was
made director of the Smithsonian Institution in
1906 -- the same year Langley died. He immediately
set up a Langley medal, a Langley Aero Lab, a
Langley memorial. And then, in 1914, he funded
Glenn Curtiss, who'd been involved in a bitter
patent dispute with the Wrights, to reconstruct the
Langley machine and show that it really could fly.
Curtiss went to work, strengthening the structure,
adding controls, reshaping it aerodynamically,
relocating the center of gravity -- in short,
making it airworthy. In 1914 he flew it for 150
feet, and then he went back and replaced the old
motor as well. On the basis of Curtiss's
reconstruction, the Smithsonian honored Langley for
having built the first successful flying machine.
In 1925 Orville Wright at last roused American
opinion to his cause by placing the original
airplane -- this American treasure -- in the
Science Museum of London. In 1942 the Secretary of
the Smithsonian, Charles Abbot, finally authorized
publication of an article that clearly showed the
Langley reconstruction was rigged. Orville
responded by telling the British that his airplane
should be returned to the Smithsonian Institution
after the war. He died in January, 1948, and 11
months later the first airplane returned to America
-- to the Smithsonian -- where it now hangs over a
label giving the Wright brothers their due.
Today, of course, Langley's name graces a major
NASA center, an Army airbase, and the CIA
headquarters. But justice nevertheless seems to
have prevailed for the Wright brothers.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds