The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy
Rebuilding a Reputation

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n 30 June 1898 Walcott went back to the USGS full time. Richard Rathbun, who had joined the Smithsonian in 1897 with Walcott, became Assistant Secretary and head of the National Museum. But with his offices in the National Museum Building, Walcott was never very far away from the goings-on at the Smith. He shared in the triumph when the new museum building was funded, then was heart-broken when the Aerodrome failed to fly – twice.

Langley made his first attempt to launch the Aerodrome on 7 October 1903, flinging it from the top of a houseboat with a giant catapult. The Aerodrome left the catapult and traced a gentle arc to the surface of the Potomac River. It showed no ambition to fly, it simply "slid into the water like a handful of wet mortar" as one newspaper reported. The second attempt on 8 December 1903 was much more spectacular, but equally disappointing. As the Aerodrome left the catapult, the back wings folded up, the tail crumpled and the aircraft turned almost upside-down as it dropped into the river. Its pilot, Charles Manly, was trapped beneath the wreckage in the icy water. He did not panic, but kept his head and dove down and away from the sinking aircraft. He surfaced yards away and was quickly plucked from the water by workmen in a rowboat.

What caused these failures is still a matter of debate, but the photos taken of the Aerodrome during the launches clearly point to the wings. They were just too flimsy. When traveling through the air at flight speed, they could not hold their shape, angle of attack, or even their horizontal position. The photos from the 7 October launch show the forward wings are twisted so as to drive the nose of the aircraft down. There aren’t as many photos to analyze of the 8 December attempt because the aircraft was launched late in the day when the light was waning. But the one photo that does exist shows the back wings folded up. The spars seem to have snapped at their roots as the Aerodrome left the catapult and the wings took its full weight. In both cases, the wings failed or deformed.

Langley laid the blame elsewhere. After both launch attempts, he insisted the Aerodrome was airworthy; the fault was in the launching mechanism. It had caught on something as it was flung into the air. He pointed out that this was an experiment; he was close to the solution, he just needed more money to continue the tests until he licked the launch problem. He had already applied for an additional $25,000 in September 1903, but after the second failure, the Army declined. In its final report on the Aerodrome project, the Army concluded, “we are still far from the ultimate goal, and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would still be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility on these lines." They deposited the remains of the Aerodrome at the Smithsonian in case Langley wanted to continue the tests on his own dime. Privately, several members of the Army said they would like to see further tests.

Publically, the Army was much more critical, as was Congress and the media. The Boston Herald suggested Langley should give up airplanes and try submarines. Representative Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska commented to the Brooklyn Eagle, "You can tell Langley for me ... that the only thing he ever made fly was government money " Walcott was appalled as Langley was lampooned again and again in the newspapers and on the floors of Congress, and not just because his friend was under fire. These comments affected Walcott’s respectability as well as Langley’s.


Samuel Pierpont Langley died on 26 February 1906, leaving the Smithsonian with its reputation at low ebb. Not only had it suffered the embarrassment of the failed Aerodrome, there had been problems with the new building. Work was halted in 1905 as its ornate baroque design was exchanged for a simpler dome and columns. That same year, the Smithsonian’s accountant W.W. Karr was found with his hands in the till. And toward the end of the year, reports began to surface that a pair of bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio had developed a practical airplane with no financial resources other than their own earnings. When compared to the $50,000 Langley had spent – $73,000 if you counted what he borrowed from internal Smithsonian funds – this was a major political embarrassment.

The Board of Regents first offered the Smithsonian’s reigns to Henry Fairfield Osborn, another administrative genius whose innovative dinosaur displays at the Museum of Natural History were drawing crowds. When Osborn declined, they turned again to Charles Walcott, who this time accepted the challenge and began to rebuild the Smithsonian’s reputation. And part of his plan to do so was to rehabilitate Langley’s reputation as a pioneer in the science of aeronautics.

In late 1909, the Smithsonian instituted the “Samuel P. Langley Medal for Aerodromics” to recognize recipients for contributions to knowledge of aeronautics and aviation. The first Langley Medal would be awarded to the Wright brothers whose reputation had achieved rock-star status after their triumphant tour of Europe and highly-publicized flights around New York City. Some members of the award committee – among them the Wrights’ one-time supporter, Octave Chanute – argued that the Wrights were too commercially-focused to deserve the award. The patent infringement suits that they were beginning to file were drawing attention. But Walcott knew he needed to ride the Wrights’ considerable coat-tails to get Langley back in the news and in a favorable light. President William Howard Taft awarded the Langley Medal to Wilbur and Orville Wright on 19 February 1910. At the award banquet, Alexander Graham Bell gave a long speech enumerating Langley’s achievements in aviation, barely mentioning the Wright brothers. When he did mention them, he made it seem as if the Wrights had built upon Langley’s work. The 1910 Smithsonian Annual Report, which published copies of these speeches, compounded this misconception by misquoting Wilbur. 

A month later, the Smithsonian opened its new building across the Mall and began moving its natural history collections to their new digs. The old National Museum building became the Arts and Industries building, and with the fossils gone there was suddenly enough room to display some airplanes. Walcott planned to exhibit four Langley aerodromes, including Aerodrome A. He wrote Wilbur Wright on March 7, asking that the Wrights supply a Wright aircraft, or perhaps an engine and some models. Wilbur countered by offering Walcott models if he wanted them, but also telling him that the 1903 Wright Flyer – the first airplane to make a sustained and controlled powered flight – was available. Walcott responded on April 11, describing the planned aviation exhibit in more detail. He seemed unimpressed with the offer of the 1903 Flyer and more interested in displaying the 1909 Wright Military Flyer “…inasmuch as that machine used at Fort Myer has attracted such world-wide interest…” The most telling remark in his letter, however, was, “The natural plan would be to install the different Wright machines along with the Langley machines, making the exhibit illustrate two very important steps in the history of the aeronautical art.” After their experience at the Langley Medal ceremony, Wilbur and Orville could not help but think that the exhibit, as described, would aggrandize Langley’s work at the expense of theirs. Wilbur declined to reply and Walcott did not persist. In the end, he represented the Wrights by procuring the worn-out Signal Corps No. 1 from the Army. This was the Military Flyer he had seemed so keen on in his letter.

In Their Own Words

  • Langley Memoir on Mechanical Flight – Charles Manly, Langley's assistant on the Aerodrome project, summarizes Langley's aeronautical experiments and concludes that Aerodrome A only needs further testing to prove that it was airworthy. Published in 1911, this was part of the Smithsonian campaign to rehabilitate Langley's reputation. It's also an excellent overview of Langley's work in aeronautics.

The Aerodrome A was built in several sections -- frame, wings, and tail – then assembled in place on its catapult.

Samuel Langley (right) and the Aerodrome's chief engineer and pilot, Charles Manly (left). Note that Manly has optimistically sewn a barometer into the left leg of his trousers to gauge his altitude in flight.

The Aerodrome is launched on 7 October 1903. Upon clearing the catapult, it takes a shallow dive into the Potomac River.

The Aerodrome's airframe incorporated several floats to prevent it from sinking. It was a sodden mess, but easily retrieved.

Charles Manly waiting to be rescued.

The Aerodrome just after it was launched on 8 December 1903.

Left to right: Charles Walcott, Wilbur Wright, Alexander Graham Bell and Orville Wright as they board a limousine to take them to the presentation ceremony for the Langley Medal.

The new National Museum Building in 1911. It now serves as the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

The 1909 Wright Miltary Flyer, designated "Signal Corps No. 1," was retired and donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1911. It presently hangs in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

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