Langley's Innovations Propelled Flight
From the ceiling of Pitt’s Wesley W. Posvar Hall hangs one of the first heavier-than-air craft to achieve a sustained flight.
The unmanned, steam-driven aircraft—named Aerodrome No. 6—was launched in November 1896 by catapult from a houseboat moored in the Potomac River and flew more than 5,000 feet. It was designed by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel P. Langley, who began his research on mechanical flight while a Pitt astronomy professor and director of the University’s Allegheny Observatory from 1867 to 1890.
The Aerodrome No. 6 in Posvar Hall is one of only two surviving Langley aircraft. It was restored in part by Pitt engineering students, with fabric on its wings and tail as the only new material.
The very first heavier-than-air powered aircraft to make a sustained flight (in May 1896), Langley’s Aerodrome No. 5, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Langley launched a manned Aerodrome (he derived the term from the Greek words for “air runner”), piloted by his chief assistant Charles M. Manly, on Oct. 7 and Dec. 8, 1903. But both times the aircraft failed to fly and crashed into the Potomac, leaving Manly shaken and soaked, but unhurt. Nine days after the Dec. 8 failure, the Wright Brothers performed their successful flights near Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Flying machines weren’t Langley’s only inventions. At Pitt, after dramatically upgrading the Allegheny Observatory and founding its internationally renowned program of measuring distances between stars, he created a detector for measuring the intensity of the light and heat radiation from the sun.
Langley also invented an electronic railroad time service, called the Allegheny System, through which 40 railroads received precisely accurate time signals from the observatory; this was prior to the establishment of “standard times” nationally or regionally. “The service provided an income of about $3,500 a year, which made the observatory very nearly self-supporting,” Robert C. Albert wrote in his book Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh 1787-1987.
Pitt’s Samuel P. Langley Hall was named for the astronomer-aeronautics pioneer, as was the U.S. Air Force’s Langley Air Force Base, which was merged in 2010 with the Army’s Fort Eustis.