Creativity and the Mostly Forgotten Story of Samuel Pierport Langley

You’ve almost certainly heard of the Wright brothers and know a few basics about their story: how they constructed the first airplane in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio; how the bare bones operation was self-funded by Orville and Wilbur, neither of whom had a college degree; and how they traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for their test runs, where they ultimately succeeded in the first ever flight of a manned aircraft. On the other hand, unless you’ve been hanging out with me lately, (or you’re quite the history nerd!), you probably don’t know about the life of Samuel Pierport Langley, who, at the end of the 19thcentury (and beginning of the 20th), was the odds-on favorite to succeed in building the world’s first airplane.

It’s an amazing story, which has been largely forgotten. Langley was the second director of the Smithsonian Institute and a famous inventor. And his reputation was not without merit. During the 1890’s, Langley developed a machine called the Aerodrome, a small unmanned airplane. And it was the fifth iteration of this invention that became the first heavier-than-air machine to achieve sustained flight, traveling 3,300 feet over the Potomac River. Buoyed by this success, Langley started the process of scaling up his Aerodrome in order to carry a pilot. He had financial support from the U.S. government and Alexander Graham Bell. In all, he spent $70,000 on his invention, the equivalent of 2 million in today’s dollars, (compared with the Wright brothers’ $1,000 personal investment, which is the equivalent of $30,000). 

But in 1903, when Langley launched his piloted Aerodrome in front of a large crowd of spectators, newspaper reporters, and photographers, the results were disastrous. The winged behemoth, which was ejected from a barge with a slingshot device, dove into the Potomac River, breaking into pieces and injuring the pilot. A second attempt ended the same way, and Langley faded into history, a failure.

The contrast between the Wright brothers and Langley is remarkable. Orville and Wilbur were obscure bicycle makers in Ohio; Langley was the toast of Washington D.C. The brothers were self-funded and had limited resources; Langley accessed huge financial support. Langley was educated and viewed as successful, while the Wright brothers dealt with overwhelming skepticism regarding their qualifications. In fact, the only things these inventors seemed to have in common were the desire to build the first airplane and the mechanical ability to pull it off (or come very close). And to me, the stark contrast in these two stories raises the question: Is part of the secret for the Wright brothers’ success found in the fact that no one was watching?

As a writer, I constantly crave validation. I have set off on a double book project, now six years in the making, and during this process, found it difficult, at times, to keep plugging away, holding on to the belief that the finished product will be good—and that it will find an audience. Often, I wish that I had a big grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a publisher waiting in the wings, itching for me to finish my manuscripts. I wish that I was the toast of the town and that people already viewed me as a success. In other words, a lot of times, I wish I was Samuel Pierport Langley.

But what I often fail to take into account is the fact that Langley was hindered by all of those watching eyes. It’s entirely possible that his Aerodrome was rushed to completion out of a desire to satisfy his investors. What if he had taken another year and completed another set of modifications? What if he had been willing to scrap his initial design and start over? The very nature of success and failure for Langley was altered by the crowds. When Langley developed his smaller, unpiloted Aerodrome, the first four models failed to fly. It was the fifth aerodrome that finally took off (excuse the bad pun). But when he moved on to his larger, piloted version, it only took one failure before the world lost faith (along with his pilot, I’m sure). And when the second Aerodrome crashed, it was all over.

The Wright brothers, on the other hand, may very well have benefited from their relative obscurity. Sure, they had to put up with the sideways glances and the suffocating self-doubt that eats away. But when they traveled to Kitty Hawk and trudged to their launch site with help from three other individuals (just enough to physically get the airplane into starting position), they were free to set their own definition of success and failure, make modifications, and try again.

As we struggle through the process of invention, everyone wants to be Samuel Langley. I’m sure the Wright brothers spent more than a few evenings smoking on their back porch wishing they were in the position of their colleague in Washington—that they had all the resources in the world and that all of their neighbors believed in what they were doing. But there’s a reason that a lot of first albums prove to be a band’s best: it’s the music that they created when no one was watching or pushing them to finish their next release. And there’s a reason that big budget movies are prone to flop: the dollar signs set expectations that are almost impossible to meet. As much as we might want the attention and the affirmation, as an artist or creator, those watching eyes can be a detriment to the creative process.

What we need, instead, is to have a few key people in our lives who believe in us and care about this thing we’ve set out to accomplish. We need spouses and life partners who will take the long view, understanding that the thing is probably going to crash several times—and that, at some point, we’re probably going to have to scrap the project and start over (this will happen at least once). We need friends who will affirm us with those vital words, “Keep going; it’s going to be great.” And we need to constantly keep in mind why we took up this endeavor in the first place.

I’m really blessed to have the support that I have, and one of my resolutions for 2019, as I continue this quiet labor, is to remember that my work has been affirmed by a small band of people, whose opinions I value the most: my wife, my writing partners with whom I trade unfinished manuscripts, my cohort from graduate school, the few editors who have chosen my stories out of the slush pile. And because I have that solid foundation of support, I don’t need to be a Samuel Langley. In fact, when I’m really focused on my work, first and foremost, I can see that I’m a lot better off the way things are.