While the world will celebrate on Dec. 17 the 120-foot leap the Wright Brothers made 75 years ago to introduce powered flight, few will remember the earlier efforts of Samuel Pierpont Langley, an early Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, whose attempts are delightfully reported in the institution's December Smithsonian.
On December 8, 1903, stripped of his outer clothes down to his union suit, Langley's pilot Charles Manly sauntered into the cockpit of the Langley-designed aircraft, high atop a house-boat launching ramp floating in the Potomac.
"Satisfied with the sound of his engine and the operation of the controls, Manly gave the signal for release at 4:45. He sped down the 60-foot track, felt a sharp jerk and immediately found himself staring straight up at the sky as his aerial steed flipped on its back and dropped into the water.
"Moments later, wrapped in warm blankets and fortified with whiskey, this genteel son of a university president startled the group by delivering 'a most voluble series of blasphemies.' Langley's 20-year drive (at a cost of $50,000 in tax monies and $20,000 from the Smithsonian's private coffers) to develop a flying machine was halted."
The next morning Orville Wright boarded a train in Dayton, Ohio, for a two day journey to Kitty Hawk.