Samuel Langley, born in Roxbury, MA
, had a wealthy father
who encouraged him to study and pursue educational hobbies
. Langley's childhood love was astronomy
, but he eventually chose civil engineering
as his occupation. After several years at jobs as a qualified engineer and architect, he changed directions and went back to his study of astronomy and science. He taught mathematics
at the US Naval Academy
, became the director of the Allegheny Observatory
, and taught physics and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh
though he had never earned a college degree. In the late 1880s his studies on the effects of the sun on the weather and wind currents led him to aviation
Langley was soon experimenting with models, the first of which were powered by rubber bands. When he became the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, he drew on his expertise and knowledge of the technicians and scientists there. The result was the complete of a series of test planes. On 6 May 1896, with his friend Alexander Graham Bell as an observer, Langley sent his Aerodrome Number 5 into the air, launched from a catapult on top of a houseboat in the middle of the Potomac River. This 30 lb. craft with a steam engine flew for 1 minute 20 seconds at an altitude of 70 to 100 feet for a distance of 3,000 feet. It was the first successfully flight of an unmanned heavier-than-air flying machine. Langley's Aerodrome Number 6 had mechanical problems that day, but it flew 4,200 feet in November of 1896.
In 1898, at President William McKinley's instigation, the US Army awarded Langley $50,000 to develop a plane that could carry a man aloft. In December, 1903, nine days before the Wright Brothers' test at Kitty Hawk, Langley tried out his new gasoline-powered model. A mishap with the catapult caused the airplane to plunge to the bottom of the Potomac, and Langley gave up his experiments after being criticized by the press for the great expense to the taxpayers.