It stands unobtrusively in the Early Flight gallery on the ground floor of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). Look below and just beyond the 1894 glider flown by aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal, and there it is, a primitive radial aircraft engine not quite four feet in diameter, modestly displayed. But don't dismiss it. This small piece of machinery has a tale to tell.
By the start of the 20th century the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel Pierpont Langley, had bet his reputation — not to mention tens of thousands of government dollars — that he would build the world's first powered, man-carrying flying machine.
Langley was no harebrained dreamer, but a serious scholar with a background in mathematics, architecture and astronomy. Coolly scientific, he demanded much of his staff. His memos often contained the words "I desire . . ." and his employees hopped to fulfill those desires.
Inspired by an 1886 lecture on the possibility of manned flight, he was badly bitten by the bug. By the 1890s he had built and tested a number of models, which were powered at first by rubber bands. He considered various engines — gasoline, carbonic acid gas, electric, even gunpowder — but at the time, such engines would have been too large, too dangerous or not powerful enough. Eventually, he settled on steam, and after a number of failed attempts, he built two gasoline-fueled, steam-powered models that flew beautifully. On two fine days in 1896 — one in May and one in Novembe — the little planes, each about 16 feet long, soared away from their launching pad, a houseboat on the Potomac River. Small steam engines whiffling happily, they held a steady course on an even keel, one covering 3,300 feet, the other reaching 4,200 feet and a speed of 30 miles an hour.
Langley had decided on a tandem wing configuration — two sets of wings of almost equal span set one behind the other — for what he called his "aerodromes." They had a large dihedral; that is, the wings formed a squashed V when seen head-on. This gave them stability in flight.
Professor Langley should have quit while he was ahead. But his success with small-scale powered flight intensified his dream of building an aerodrome big enough to carry a man. As his friend Octave Chanute — an important aeronautical guru of the day — pointed out, Langley had "cast iron ways." One was his conviction that simply reproducing those successful models on a grand scale would result in a man carrying "Great Aerodrome." This would require, among other things, a lot of horsepower in a lightweight engine, a daunting prospect a century ago.
As the Army and Navy geared up for the Spanish-American War in 1898, Secretary Langley's enthusiasm for flight stirred their interest. He wrote to a friend at Cornell that "an aerodrome capable of a speed of 30 miles an hour maintained for three hours, carrying an 'aeronaut' and possibly some missiles may be attempted." He added that he needed some sort of gas engine (there having been much progress in gasoline engines in the previous few years), and asked if his friend could recommend a "young man who is morally trustworthy ('a good fellow') with some gumption and a professional training."
In response, young Charles Matthews Manly showed up at the Smithsonian. A brilliant engineering student, he was about to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell. When selected to meet Langley's request, he took off for Washington like a shot, receiving his degree in absentia.
One of Manly's first tasks was to supervise the construction of a remarkable gasoline engine designed by a Hungarian immigrant in New York, Stephen Marius Balzer. Balzer had been a watchmaker at Tiffany's, then studied engineering at night school while working at a machine shop. Such industry had paid off in 1894, when New Yorkers gaped at the city's first homegrown automobile — built by Balzer. Now in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, it's a simple structure of sturdy pipe work with a small three-cylinder engine to spin the rear axle.
Balzer's engine, light yet powerful, had intrigued Langley. He contracted with Balzer for the world's first "aero engine" to power what he hoped would be the world's first manned airplane, already being built in a shop behind the Smithsonian Castle where the Enid A. Haupt Garden now delights the eye.