It was the early 20th century. America was in a race with the powers of the world to invent the first airplane. Much was at stake. Our leaders feared that the Germans, the British, and, if you can suspend your disbelief, the French might beat us to the punch, giving the winning country a huge advantage militarily and economically.
Who better to win the race for us, thought our leaders, than the best and brightest minds the government could buy? They chose Samuel Langley. You don’t know him, but in his day, Langley was a big deal. He had a big brain and lots of credentials. A renowned scientist and a professor of astronomy, he wrote books about aviation and was the head of the Smithsonian.
It was the kind of decision that well-intentioned bureaucrats would make throughout the century — and still make today. Give taxpayer money to the smartest guys in the room, the ones with lots of degrees. They’ll innovate and do good for us.
Langley did have some success with unmanned flight, using a catapult-like system to propel his machines into the air. On the basis of that limited success, the Department of War gave him $50,000 for two experiments, and he extracted a decent sum from the Smithsonian, too. That was real money back then. Today, bureaucrats wouldn’t stop to pick up $50,000 if it were lying on the street.
What did the citizens of the United States get for that “investment,” the kind we are making today in green energy? It was the Great Aerodrome, and on October 7, 1903, the aircraft developed by Langley’s team of experts was launched from a catapult on a houseboat in the Potomac River.
The crowds lined up, as did the press. As the aircraft accelerated and reached full speed, it was hurtled along a catapult toward a launch. A few scant seconds of sudden acceleration were followed by a sudden and shocking plunge into river. “It fell like a ton of mortar,” a reporter wrote.
The plane that couldn’t fly and the man flying it were somehow salvaged, and preparations were made for another flight. The project needed some tweaks, the experts told the world. On December 8, Langley and his team of brainiacs tried it again. This time, the airplane got caught up in the launching mechanism and dropped into the river.
Langley’s machine should have been called the Not So Great Aerodrome; it never got airborne. The media had a field day. “The Boston Herald suggested that Professor Langley ought to give up airplanes and try submarines,” Burt Folsom notes in a lecture in Hillsdale College’s series of online courses, “American Heritage.” The Brooklyn Eagle led its story with this quote from a now-forgotten congressman: “You tell Langley for me that the only thing he ever made fly was government money.”
The War Department, in its final report on the Langley project, concluded: “We are still far from the ultimate goal, and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would still be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility on these lines.” Isn’t that just the kind of arrogance you’d expect from government bureaucrats? If their best minds can’t do it with our money, no one can.