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jpg An Idea Takes Flight

Samuel Pierpont Langley, ca. 1890.

Samuel Pierpont Langley

Samuel Pierpont Langley was the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 1887 until his death in 1906. Langley studied the basic laws of aerodynamics, the science dealing with the motion of air. His experiments ultimately led him to design the first unmanned heavier-than-air craft able to sustain flight, which he termed an "aerodrome." In 1911, the Aero Club of Washington, D.C. established May 6 as "Langley Day," the 15th anniversary of the first successful flight of Langley's flying machine in 1896. In recognition of his many contributions to the study of flight, the Smithsonian commissioned a bronze plaque from one of the nation's foremost designers of commemorative medals, unveiled on Langley Day 1913, during ceremonies conducted in the Smithsonian Institution building.

Langley Memorial Plaque

Elements of the plaque

The objects depicted in the plaque are symbols of the workings of Langley’s mind.


Langley’s model flying machine, with its double set of wings, is visible in the upper left corner of the plaque. This tandem-wing craft, with a span of fifteen feet, was powered by a lightweight steam engine. Between 1886 and 1896, Langley designed, built, and tested a series of flying machines. On May 6, 1896, Aerodrome #5, flew a distance of 3,000 feet before landing gently on the Potomac River.


The birds depicted in the plaque are a reminder of Langley’s lifelong interest with natural flight. As he recalled later in life : The lying down as a child in a New England pasture and looking at the mysterious soaring of a hen hawk far above in the sky has led me to give many years of my mature life to the study of the subject of traveling through air.


The books stacked in front of Langley represent his three major treatises on the subject of flight. In Experiments in Aerodynamics, first published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1891, Langley suggested the possibility of human flight. The Internal Work of the Wind, a paper read before the National Academy of Sciences in 1893, recorded Langley’s measurements of the wind. Mechanical Flight was written by Langley and his assistant Charles Manly to record their progress on Aerodrome #5.


Langley’s placement in the composition, seated in profile outdoors with his arm resting on a railing, creates a contemplative feeling enhanced by the void of space before him. The artist emphasized Langley’s use of observation and wonder as the ultimate building blocks for knowledge and accomplishment by depicting him intently focused on the flight of the birds and his aerodrome above.



John Flanagan (1865-1952) designed and fabricated the Langley memorial plaque between the years 1910 and 1913 at the beginning of his career. Born in Newark, New Jersey, he studied art at the Cooper Union in New York City and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he was a protégé of the famous American sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens. Flanagan became known as an artist who specialized in commemorative sculpture, an art form that gained prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was a prolific artist, designing hundreds of memorial medals and plaques over his fifty-year career.
Despite his reputation as one of the nation’s foremost medallists, John Flanagan died in relative obscurity at a welfare hospital in New Jersey in March 1952, overshadowed by the more famous sculptors of his generation.



The legend at the bottom of the plaque is divided into two phrases. The first stated Langley’s contributions to the field through his analysis of flight: Discovered the relations of speed and angle of inclination to the lifting power of surfaces moving in air.
The second phrase reflected Langley’s own perception of the impact of his experiments on future generations:
I have brought to a close the portion of the work which seemed to be specially mine, the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight. The great universal highway overhead is now soon to be opened.


You can own a work of art by John Flanagan for only twenty-five cents!

In 1932, Flanagan designed the commemorative George Washington quarter dollar. This coin was created to mark the 200th anniversary of our first president’s birthday.


This exhibit is based on a research project conducted for the Office of Architectural History & Historic Preservation by intern Melissa Draper in 1997.

© Smithsonian Institution 2007