The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy
Aerodrome Beginnings

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harles Walcott had been deeply involved with the Aerodrome long before the Hammondsport trials. He had, in fact, played a vital role in its inception in 1898. By that time, he had been a player in Washington for nearly two decades. Walcott had joined the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as “employee #20” in 1879 and quickly rose through the ranks. Not only did he write three ground-breaking works on paleontology in the span of a decade, he was adept at working with organizations outside the USGS. He organized the Smithsonian’s growing fossil collection and produced a massive paleontological exhibit for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exhibition.

 In 1894, the Director of the USGS, Major John Wesley Powell, fell afoul of Congress over policies that restricted the development of western lands. He was forced to resign and Walcott was appointed to the directorship, not because he was the most senior or the most accomplished scientist at the USGS, but because it was generally agreed that he had the political acumen to repair links with Congress. That trust was well-founded. By 1898, Walcott had doubled the size and responsibilities of the USGS, as well as its allotted funding. He had also cultivated many useful friendships around town and was on a first-name basis with President William McKinley.

In 1897, George Brown Goode, the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, died unexpectedly. The Smith keenly felt his loss. Goode, an accomplished naturalist, historian and author, was the first director of the National Museum and was being groomed for the top position. Secretary Samuel P. Langley, who had been in charge since 1887, was a popular figurehead. Every American was thankful to him for making the railroads run on time – he had established time zones and then telegraphed accurate time data (based on astronomical observations) to the railroad stations. His subsequent discovery of sun spots and exciting experiments with unmanned flying “aerodromes” had kept him in the news and made the Smithsonian a household word. But his micromanagement and autocratic airs limited his effectiveness as a leader, and his reclusiveness and aversion to publicity diminished him politically. By contrast, Goode was a respected and energetic leader, a brilliant planner and organizer, and the Smithsonian’s best political asset. With Goode gone, the Smith was in trouble.

The Smithsonian Board of Regents offered the Assistant Secretary position to Walcott knowing he was one of the few who could fill Goode’s shoes. He wouldn’t even have to move – the USGS offices were in the Smithsonian’s overcrowded National Museum building. After much cajoling, Walcott agreed to take on the position in addition to his USGS duties only until another suitable candidate could be found. Once in the saddle, he attacked the problems he saw with characteristic energy and immediately began reorganizing the museum, instituting an administrative system that lasts to this day.

The Smithsonian of 1897 was not the powerhouse that now dominates the Mall in the center of Washington DC. It had been ignored and underfunded by Congress since its inception in 1846. The Institution was the result of a decade-long debate of what to do with James Smithson’s half-million-dollar bequest to the United States of America for “the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” Its central building, nicknamed “The Castle,” was built in 1855. The National Museum Building was built nearby in 1881, mostly to house exhibits left over from the 1876 Centennial International Exposition of Philadelphia – the first World’s Fair. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Smithsonian was crippled by a lack of space. Langley had added a zoological park – the National Zoo – in 1889, but that had done nothing to alleviate the overcrowding.

Smithsonian Origins
Walcott was well-aware than the Smithsonian needed to expand, and was equally mindful that it needed the support of Congress to do so. It must have occurred to him that a big win for the Smith would go a long way’s toward polishing its reputation and attracting political support. In February of 1898, two events combined that allowed him to produce that win. First, the February edition of Popular Science published a laudatory biography of Walcott that ratcheted his reputation up several notches. And second, the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor that same month caused the U.S. military to inventory its weapons as war with Spain became imminent. In his diary, Walcott described what happened next:
  • March 21, 1898 – Walcott runs across Langley in his workshop, which was proximate to Walcott’s paleontology lab. They discuss adapting Langley’s aerodrome design to carry a man. Langley is positive; says such as thing could be of great service to his country.

  • March 22, 1898 – Walcott meets Langley again and asks if he was serious about building a manned aerodrome. Langley says, “Yes, if the money could be secured.”

  • March 24, 1898 – Walcott calls on President McKinley and tells him about the “Langley flying machine.” McKinley suggests he talk to Secretary of War George de Rue Meiklejohn and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.

  • March 25, 1898 – Walcott meets with Roosevelt. Roosevelt pens a memorandum to other members of the War Department saying, “…the machine has worked. It seems to me worthwhile for this government to try whether or not it will work on a large enough scale to be of use in the event of war.”

In April, Roosevelt convened a committee with members from the Army, Navy, and civilian sector. After discussions with Langley, the committee recommended pursuing a manned aerodrome and forwarded their recommendation to the Army and Navy. The Navy declined, saying that an airplane would likely be of more use on land. But the Army bit and in November it assigned Langley the task of developing a manned airplane for military use. They agreed to fund the program for $50,000 – $25,000 in 1898 and another $25,000 in 1899 if sufficient progress was made. It was also supposed to be a secret program, but an account of the Langley's windfall appeared in the newspaper the very next day.

And it was big news, Just the funding was an earth-shaking accomplishment. The War Department’s Board of Ordinance, which provided the money, had never before invested in the actual development of a technology. They were legendary misers; hoarders that had defied President Abraham Lincoln and delayed the distribution of repeating rifles to the U.S. Army during the American Civil War on the grounds that they would “waste bullets.” In getting them to fund a speculative experiment, Langley – with Walcott’s initiative – had moved a mountain. And this achievement had its desired effect. In 1902, while Langley’s star was still on the rise, Congress agreed to erect a new building for the National Museum, directly across the Mall from the Smithsonian Castle.
Wasting Bullets

Charles Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies and the mother load of fossils it contained from the Cambrian period, 505 million years ago.

A Marrella Splendens or "Lace Crab" fossil, excavated by Walcott. Eventually, he would uncover over 65,000 specimens of Cambrian life from the shale.

Langley's unmanned Aerodrome No. 5, was successfully launched on 6 May 1896. The Smithsonian would eventually declare 6 May as "Langley Day."

Langley's aerodrome flights made good copy for the media – and good public relations for the Smithsonian – as this New York World story indicates.

The Smithsonian "Castle" (right) and the Arts and Industries Building (left). Until 1911, these two buildings comprised most of the office and exhibit space in the Smithsonian.

Both Langley's aeronautical workshop and Walcott's paleontological laboratory were in the South Shed, behind the Castle.

Assistant Secretary to the Navy Theodore Roosevelt in 1897.

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