The record of my attempts to acquire the art of flight may commence with the year 1889, when I procured a stuffed frigate bird, a California condor, and an albatross, and attempted to move them upon the whirling table at Allegheny.
Continuing The First Airplanes,
with a selection from Annual Report of Smithsonian Institution by Samuel Langley published in 1897. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. This selection is presented in 2.5 installments for 5 minute daily reading each.
Previously in The First Airplanes.
The subject of flight interested me as long ago as I can remember anything, but it was a communication from Mr. Lancaster, read at the Buffalo meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1886, which aroused my then dormant attention to the subject. What he said contained some remarkable but apparently mainly veracious observations on the soaring bird, and some more or less paradoxical assertions, which caused his communication to be treated with less consideration than it might otherwise have deserved. Among these latter was a statement that a model, somewhat resembling a soaring bird, wholly inert, and without any internal power, could, nevertheless, under some circumstances, advance against the wind without falling; which seemed to me then, as it did to members of the association, an utter impossibility, but which I have seen since reason to believe is, within limited conditions, theoretically possible.
I was then engaged in the study of astrophysics at the Observatory in Allegheny, Pa. The subject of mechanical flight could not be said at that time to possess any literature, unless it was the publications of the French and English aeronautical societies, but in these, as in everything then accessible, fact had not yet always been discriminated from fancy. Outside of these, almost everything was even less trustworthy; but though, after I had experimentally demonstrated certain facts, anticipations of them were found by others on historical research, and though we can now distinguish in retrospective examination what would have been useful to the investigator if he had known it to be true, there was no test of the kind to apply at the time. I went to work, then, to find out for myself, and in my own way, what amount of mechanical power was requisite to sustain a given weight in the air and make it advance at a given speed, for this seemed to be an inquiry which must necessarily precede any attempt at mechanical flight, which was the very remote aim of my efforts.
The work was commenced in the beginning of 1887 by the construction, at Allegheny, of a turn-table of exceptional size, driven by a steam engine, and this was used during three years in making the Experiments in Aerodynamics, which were published by the Smithsonian Institution under that title in 1891. Nearly all of the conclusions reached were the result of direct experiment in an investigation which aimed to take nothing on trust. Few of them were then familiar, though they have since become so, and in this respect knowledge has advanced so rapidly, that statements, which were treated as paradoxical on my first enunciation of them, are now admitted as truisms.
It has taken me, indeed, but a few years to pass through the period when the observer hears that his alleged observation was a mistake; the period when he is told that if it were true, it would be useless; and the period when he is told that it is undoubtedly true, but that it has always been known.
May I quote from the introduction to this book what was said in 1891? “I have now been engaged since the beginning of the year 1887 in experiments on an extended scale for determining the possibilities of, and the conditions for, trans porting in the air a body whose specific gravity is greater than that of the air, and I desire to repeat my conviction that the obstacles in its way are not such as have been thought; that they lie more in apparently secondary difficulties, as those of guiding the body so that it may move in the direction desired and ascend or descend with safety, than in what may appear to be primary difficulties, due to the air itself.” . . . The first stage of the investigation was now over, so far as that I had satisfied myself that mechanical flight was possible with the power we could hope to command, if only the art of directing that power could be acquired.
The second stage (that of the acquisition of this art) I now decided to take up. It may not be out of place to recall that at this time, only six years ago, a great many scientific men treated the whole subject with entire indifference, as unworthy of attention, or as outside of legitimate research, the proper field of the charlatan, and one on which it was scarcely prudent for a man with a reputation to lose to enter.
The record of my attempts to acquire the art of flight may commence with the year 1889, when I procured a stuffed frigate bird, a California condor, and an albatross, and attempted to move them upon the whirling table at Allegheny. The experiments were very imperfect and the records are unfortunately lost, but the important conclusion to which they led was that a stuffed bird could not be made to soar except at speeds which were unquestionably very much greater than what served to sustain the living one, and the earliest experiments and all subsequent ones with actually flying models have shown that thus far we cannot carry nearly the weights which Nature does to a given sustaining surface without a power much greater than she employs. At the time these experiments were begun, Penaud’s ingenious but toy-like model was the only thing which could sustain itself in the air for even a few seconds, and calculations founded upon its performance sustained the conclusion that the amount of power required in actual free flight was far greater than that demanded by the theoretical enunciation. In order to learn under what conditions the aerodrome should be balanced for horizontal flight, I constructed over thirty modifications of the rubber-driven model, and spent many months in endeavoring from these to ascertain the laws of “balancing,” that is, of stability leading to horizontal flight. Most of these models had two propellers, and it was extremely difficult to build them light and strong enough. Some of them had superposed wings; some of them curved and some plane wings; in some the propellers were side by side; in others one propeller was at the front and the other at the rear, and so every variety of treatment was employed, but all were at first too heavy, and only those flew successfully which had from three to four feet of sustaining surface to a pound of weight, a proportion which is far greater than Nature employs in the soaring bird, where in some cases less than half a foot of sustaining surface is used to a pound. It has been shown in the Experiments in Aerodynamics that the center of pressure on an inclined plane advancing was not at the center of figure, but much in front of it, and this knowledge was at first all I possessed in balancing these early aerodromes. Even in the beginning, also, I met remarkable difficulty in throwing them into the air, and devised numerous forms of launching apparatus which were all failures, and it was necessary to keep the construction on so small a scale that they could be cast from the hand.
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