Posted on 04 January 2021

The most prominent competitor to the Wright brothers—and the only one with government funding—was the secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel Pierpont Langley. Langley was obsessed with his place in science history. At age 50, Langley had already achieved prominence through his work as an astronomer, but he wanted to make a discovery on 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. Replying to a letter from Octave Chanute on November 4 requesting a statement as to the extent the Wright brothers were aided by the work of Samuel P. Langley, who had died on February 27, Wilbur writes:

“The knowledge that the head of the most prominent scientific institution of America believed in the possibility of human flight was one of the influences that led us to undertake the preliminary investigation that preceded our active work. He recommended to us the books which enabled us to form sane ideas at the outset. It was a helping hand at a critical time and we shall always be grateful.”

The U.S. Army had funded Langley's "Aerodrome A," paying the Smithsonian $50,000 to develop a manned aircraft. Like Langley's smaller aerodromes, this was launched by a catapult atop a houseboat.

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