Langley was an old man when he began the study of aeronautics, or, as he himself might have expressed it, the study of aerodromics, since he persisted in calling the series of machines he built 'Aerodromes,' a word now used only to denote areas devoted to use as landing spaces for flying machines; the Wright Brothers, on the other hand, had the great gift of youth to aid them in their work. Even so it was a great race between Langley, aided by Charles Manly, and Wilbur and Orville Wright, and only the persistent ill-luck which dogged Langley from the start to the finish of his experiments gave victory to his rivals. It has been proved conclusively in these later years of accomplished flight that the machine which Langley launched on the Potomac River in October of 1903 was fully capable of sustained flight, and only the accidents incurred in launching prevented its pilot from being the first man to navigate the air successfully in a power-driven machine.

The best account of Langley's work is that diffused throughout a weighty tome issued by the Smithsonian Institution, entitled the Langley Memoir on Mechanical Flight, of which about one-third was written by Langley himself, the remainder being compiled by Charles M. Manly, the engineer responsible for the construction of the first radial aero-engine, and chief assistant to Langley in his experiments. To give a twentieth of the contents of this volume in the present short account of the development of mechanical flight would far exceed the amount of space that can be devoted even to so eminent a man in aeronautics as S. P. Langley, who, apart from his achievement in the construction of a power-driven aeroplane really capable of flight, was a scientist of no mean order, and who brought to the study of aeronautics the skill of the trained investigator allied to the inventive resource of the genius.

That genius exemplified the antique saw regarding the infinite capacity for taking pains, for the Langley Memoir shows that as early as 1891 Langley had completed a set of experiments, lasting through years, which proved it possible to construct machines giving such a velocity to inclined surfaces that bodies indefinitely heavier than air could be sustained upon it and propelled through it at high speed. For full account (very full) of these experiments, and of a later series leading up to the construction of a series of 'model aerodromes' capable of flight under power, it is necessary to turn to the bulky memoir of Smithsonian origin.

The account of these experiments as given by Langley himself reveals the humility of the true investigator. Concerning them, Langley remarks that, 'Everything here has been done with a view to putting a trial aerodrome successfully in flight within a few years, and thus giving an early demonstration of the only kind which is conclusive in the eyes of the scientific man, as well as of the general public - a demonstration that mechanical flight is possible - by actually flying. All that has been done has been with an eye principally to this immediate result, and all the experiments given in this book are to be considered only as approximations to exact truth. All were made with a view, not to some remote future, but to an arrival within the compass of a few years at some result in actual flight that could not be gainsaid or mistaken.'

With a series of over thirty rubber-driven models Langley demonstrated the practicability of opposing curved surfaces to the resistance of the air in such a way as to achieve flight, in the early nineties of last century; he then set about finding the motive power which should permit of the construction of larger machines, up to man-carrying size. The internal combustion engine was then an unknown quantity, and he had to turn to steam, finally, as the propulsive energy for his power plant. The chief problem which faced him was that of the relative weight and power of his engine; he harked back to the Stringfellow engine of 1868, which in 1889 came into the possession of the Smithsonian Institution as a historical curiosity. Rightly or wrongly Langley concluded on examination that this engine never had developed and never could develop more than a tenth of the power attributed to it; consequently he abandoned the idea of copying the Stringfellow design and set about making his own engine.

How he overcame the various difficulties that faced him and constructed a steam-engine capable of the task allotted to it forms a story in itself, too long for recital here. His first power-driven aerodrome of model size was begun in November of 1891, the scale of construction being decided with the idea that it should be large enough to carry an automatic steering apparatus which would render the machine capable of maintaining a long and steady flight. The actual weight of the first model far exceeded the theoretical estimate, and Langley found that a constant increase of weight under the exigencies of construction was a feature which could never be altogether eliminated. The machine was made principally of steel, the sustaining surfaces being composed of silk stretched from a steel tube with wooden attachments. The first engines were the oscillating type, but were found deficient in power. This led to the construction of single-acting inverted oscillating engines with high and low pressure cylinders, and with admission and exhaust ports to avoid the complication and weight of eccentric and valves. Boiler and furnace had to be specially designed; an analysis of sustaining surfaces and the settlement of equilibrium while in flight had to be overcome, and then it was possible to set about the construction of the series of model aerodromes and make test of their 'lift.'