Astronomy and Space

A High-Flying Prediction, Off By a Million Years

Humans have tried to emulate birds’ ability to fly since before recorded history. Despite centuries of effort, heavier-than-air flight remained out of reach. No one knows how many people lost their lives in futile attempts to soar into the skies.

The short-lived flight of the Langley Aerodome

Samuel Pierpont Langley was determined to slip the surly bonds of earth and to be the first to do so in a powered machine. As the 19th century came to a close, his experiments were so promising that the War Department and the Smithsonian issued him $70,000 worth of grants (nearly grants, totaling $70,000 (nearly $2.5 million in today’s money) to create “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.”

The result of Langley’s efforts was the Aerodome. It was designed to be catapulted into the air, at which point the engine would take over and keep the contraption and pilot airborne.

“…it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years…”

New York Times Editorial — October 9, 1903

Amidst much publicity and fanfare, Langley put the Aerodome to the test and failed spectacularly. He tried again, with the same results. His pilot, Charles Manley, was unhurt, but the Aerodome splashed unceremoniously into the Potomac River each time.

If anyone could usher humanity into the age of aviation, it should have been Langley. The fact that he was unable to do so was more than enough evidence for many people that the whole notion of powered flight was unachievable.

The New York Times was not shy about expressing this conclusion. In an editorial entitled “Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly,” the editors of the newspaper expressed exasperation at the pointless and dangerous experiments. They called the entire attempt a “ridiculous fiasco” which was “not unexpected” except by Langley and his team. The Times warned others who might attempt to fly that their efforts were doomed to failure:

Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings, or ten thousand for one with started with no wings at all and had to sprout them ab initio, it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years — provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials. No doubt the problem has attractions for those it interests, but to the ordinary man it would seem as if the effort might be employed more profitably. [emphasis added]

The seasoned, well-educated editors certainly seemed justified in their conclusion. As Ronald Reagan famously observed, however, “The trouble with our … friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.” The New York Times article was published on October 9, 1903. Sixty-nine days later, on December 17, two brothers by the name of Orville and Wilbur Wright proved the newspaper’s predictions to be off by at least 999,999.811 years.

We are not aware of the Times issuing a correction in this situation. They may have had this mistake in mind, however, when they corrected their 1920 conclusion that rockets will never fly in the vacuum of space. They did 49 years later on the day after Apollo 11 took off for the moon.

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