Through the Air by Ray Stannard Baker

Probably no American inventor of flying machines is better known or has been more successful in his experiments than Professor S. P. Langley, the distinguished secretary of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington. Professor Langley has built a machine with wings, driven by a steam-engine, and wholly without gas or other lifting power beyond its own internal energy. And this machine, to which has been given the name Aerodrome (air-runner), actually flies for considerable distances. So successful were Professor Langley's early tests, that the United States Government recently made a considerable appropriation to enable him to carry forward his experiments in the hope of finally securing a practical flying machine. His work is, therefore, the most significant and important of any now before the public (1899).

The invention of the aerodrome was the result of long years of persevering and exacting labor, with so many disappointments and set-backs that one cannot help admiring the astonishing patience which kept hope alive to the end. Early in his experiments, Professor Langley had proved positively, by mathematical calculations, that a machine could be made to fly, provided its structure were light enough and the actuating power great enough. Therefore, he was not in pursuit of a mere will-o'-the-wisp. It was a mechanical difficulty which he had to surmount, and he surmounted it.

 Professor Langley made his first experiments more than twelve years ago at Allegheny, Pennsylvania.... Professor Langley formed the general conclusion that by simply moving any given weight in plate form fast enough in a horizontal path through the air it was possible to sustain it with very little power. It was proved that, if horizontal flight without friction could be insured, 200 pounds of plates could be moved through the air and sustained upon it at the speed of an express train, with the expenditure of only one horse-power, and that, of course, without using any gas to lighten the weight.

Every boy who has skated knows that when the ice is very thin he must skate rapidly, else he may break through. In the same way, a stone may be skipped over the water for considerable distances. If it stops in any one place it sinks instantly. In exactly the same way, the plate of brass, if left in any one place in the air, would instantly drop to the earth; but if driven swiftly forward in a horizontal direction it rests only an instant in any particular place, and the air under it at any single moment does not have time to give way, so to speak, before it has passed over a new area of air. In fact, Professor Langley came to the conclusion that flight was theoretically possible with engines he could then build, since he was satisfied that engines could be constructed to weigh less than twenty pounds to the horse-power, and that one horse-power would support two hundred pounds if the flight was horizontal.

That was the beginning of the aerodrome. Professor Langley had worked out its theory, and now came the much more difficult task of building a machine in which theory should take form in fact. In the first place, there was the vast problem of getting an engine light enough to do the work. A few years ago an engine that developed one horse-power weighed nearly as much as an actual horse. Professor Langley wished to make one weighing only twenty pounds, a feat never before accomplished. And then, having made his engine, how was he to apply the power to obtain horizontal speed? Should it be by flapping wings like a bird, or by a screw propeller like a ship? This question led him into a close study of the bird compared with the man. He found how wonderfully the two were alike in bony formation, how curiously the skeleton of a bird's wing was like a man's arm, and yet he finally decided that flapping wings would not make the best propeller for his machine. Men have not adopted machinery legs for swift locomotion, although legs are nature's models, but they have, rather, constructed wheels—contrivances which practically do not exist in nature. Therefore, while Professor Langley admits that successful flying machines may one day be made with flapping wings, he began his experiments with the screw propeller.

There were three great problems in building the flying machine. First, an engine and boilers light enough and at the same time of sufficient power. Second, a structure which should be rigid and very light. Third, the enormously difficult problem of properly balancing the machine, which, Professor Langley says, took years to solve....

Professor Langley established an experimental station in the Potomac River, some miles below Washington. An old scow was obtained, and a platform about twenty feet high was built on top of it. To this spot, in 1893, the machine was taken, and here failure followed failure; the machine would not fly properly, and yet every failure, costly as it might be in time and money, brought some additional experience. Professor Langley found out that the aerodrome must begin to fly against the wind, just in the opposite way from a ship. He found that he must get up full speed in his engine before the machine was allowed to go, in the same way that a soaring bird must make an initial run on the ground before it can mount into the air, and this was, for various reasons, a difficult problem. And then there was the balancing.

"If the reader will look at the hawk or any soaring bird," says Professor Langley, "he will see that as it sails through the air without flapping the wing, there are hardly two consecutive seconds of its flight in which it is not swaying a little from side to side, lifting one wing or the other, or turning in a way that suggests an acrobat on a tight-rope, only that the bird uses its widely outstretched wings in place of the pole."

It must be remembered that air currents, unlike the Gulf Stream, do not flow steadily in one direction. They are forever changing and shifting, now fast, now slow, with something of the commotion and restlessness of the rapids below Niagara.

All of these things Professor Langley had to meet as a part of the difficult balancing problem, and it is hardly surprising that nearly three years passed before the machine was actually made to fly—on March 6, 1896.

"I had journeyed, perhaps for the twentieth time," says Professor Langley, "to the distant river station, and recommenced the weary routine of another launch, with very moderate expectation indeed; and when, on that, to me, memorable afternoon the signal was given and the aerodrome sprang into the air, I watched it from the shore with hardly a hope that the long series of accidents had come to a close. And yet it had, and for the first time the aerodrome swept continuously through the air like a living thing, and as second after second passed on the face of the stop-watch, until a minute had gone by, and it still flew on, and as I heard the cheering of the few spectators, I felt that something had been accomplished at last; for never in any part of the world, or in any period, had any machine of man's construction sustained itself in the air before for even half of this brief time. Still the aerodrome went on in a rising course until, at the end of a minute and a half (for which time only it was provided with fuel and water), it had accomplished a little over half a mile, and now it settled, rather than fell, into the river, with a gentle descent. It was immediately taken out and flown again with equal success, nor was there anything to indicate that it might not have flown indefinitely, except for the limit put upon it."