The Langley-Newcomb brouhaha over the flying machine



One century after the Wright brothers proved it was possible to build a piloted heavier-than-air “flying machine,” several airlines will soon, perhaps as early as October 2005, begin to operate the largest passenger aircraft ever built, the Airbus A380. The A380 is nearly half again as large, in terms of passenger floor space, as the Boeing 747-400. It can be configured to hold as many as 840 passengers, and it has a takeoff weight of 550,000 kg, a maximum range of 15,000 km, and a cruising speed of Mach 0.85.

The remarkable advances in aeronautics realized during the past century make it difficult to understand how anyone, let alone Simon Newcomb, one of the most prominent U.S. scientists at the turn of the twentieth century, could have opposed efforts by Samuel Pierpont Langley to build a piloted winged aircraft for the military. Newcomb argued that Langley was doomed to failure because the technology required to build such an aircraft was not then available, and he bemoaned the “waste” of scarce government funds toward the effort.