Samuel Pierpont Langley was an American astronomer and physicist who competed early on with the Wright brothers in the race for flight. Langley being a credentialed scientist beat out the Wright brothers for an important military contract designed to develop a usable airplane. Langley used the U.S. military seed money to build an "airplane" called the Aerodrome which crashed every time it flew. It was launched on the cliffs of Virginia overlooking the Potomac river, which was lucky for the pilot because that's where he ended up on each of the "flights". My question is, what is so special about this failed never flew scientist / airplane that it hangs today prominently in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum? (Dulles annex). There was a long period in the 1960's and 70's when the Aerodrome hung in the DC location and the Wright Flyer was not displayed. What gives?

  • Did the Wright Brothers compete with Langley for the military contract? I got the impression that they worked in near secrecy. The Wright Brothers were not the first to build airplanes that flew under their own power. Langley for one beat them to that. Instead they were the first to discover how to control an airplane in flight and made the first controlled flights and landed without crashing, thus becoming the right brothers in aviation history.
    – MAGolding
    Dec 3, 2017 at 17:45

1 Answer 1


Sam Langley was the secretary of the Smithsonian institution for 19 years. As you point out, this institution includes the Air and Space Museum. The Smithsonian wanted "their guy" to be recognized as the father of aviation because it would be very prestigious.

A third party, Glenn Curtiss helped perpetuate the feud between the two parties in order to improve his case in a patent lawsuit. This did not help to reconcile the conflict.

  • If the Aerodrome could fly it would dramatically weakened the Wright brothers patents. Which is why Glen Curtis rebuilt the Aerodrome incorporating Wright technology as well as an updated Curtis engine and demonstrated it as a practical airplane. The court did not find the demonstration convincing because the Aerodrome without the updates never flew noticeable better than a rock being hurled out a window. Except of coarse the rock was more stable in flight.
    – user27618
    Dec 3, 2017 at 20:34

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