The Most Brilliant Failure

Samuel P. Langley was no stranger to the waters of the Potomac. The Boston-born astronomer and aviator had used the river as a launch pad for his homemade flying machines, the latest of which was large enough to accommodate a man. But on a raw December morning in 1903, the Potomac appeared less like a landing cushion than a watery grave. This was Langley’s do-or-die moment. Eight years prior, his work had caught the eye of President William McKinley. A $50,000 research grant from the War Department—worth more than $1 million today—gave Langley the resources to travel to Europe, conduct engineering research, and build bigger flying machines, which were called aerodromes.

It was an inventor’s dream—being bankrolled with taxpayer dollars—until it came time to launch the first man-sized aerodrome. Piloted by Langley’s assistant, Charles Manley, the aerodrome crashed into the Potomac. Langley and his team managed to fish the aircraft from the water and ready it for a second launch attempt. Langley could only watch as the aerodrome hovered above the water before plummeting back into the depths.

Fifty thousand dollars down the river.

It could have ended there, on the Potomac. This would be Langley’s last attempt at flight. But for the United States government, it was a baby step towards catalyzing the study of aeronautics. The remarkable thing about the aerodrome failure was not the apparent waste of taxpayer dollars. In fact, the money wasn’t wasted at all. Engineers learned that, before reliable airplanes could be developed, we needed a systematic understanding of the physics of airflow and structures, as well as the interaction between air flow and the natural vibrations of the parts. There’s also a larger lesson. The failure didn’t stop us. America went on to explore the problems that caused the aerodrome failure and learned how to control air flow and vibrations. A crash turned into an enormously valuable lesson, rather than a sign to give up.