The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy
Letter to the Editor

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In Their Own Words

On 9 March 1922, Griffith Brewer sent a letter to the editor of Nature Magazine in response to an article in a previous issue entitled, "The Langley Machine and the Hammondsport Trials," by Sir Norman Lockyer. Part of that letter concerned the 1913 Langley Tablet that was installed at the Smithsonian.


he...fundamental principle enunciated by Langley in 1893 was that known as the “Langley Law,” which was that the faster an aeroplane be flown the less will be the power required to sustain it. The fallacy of this law is well known to all aeronautical engineers to-day, but up to 1910 this was generally considered as Langley's chief contribution to the science of aerodynamics. In that year when the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution decided upon the placing of a bronze tablet in the Institution commemorating Langley's work in aerodynamics, they ordered the following legend to be inscribed upon it :

Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution


Langley Law: “These new experiments show that if in such aerial motion there be given a plane of fixed size and weight, inclined at such an angle, and moved forward at such speed that it shall be sustained in horizontal flight, then the more rapid the motion is, the less will be the power required to support and advance it.” — Langley, “Experiments in Aerodynamics,” 1891, p.3.

“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.” — Langley Aerodrome, Smithsonian Report, 1900, p. 216.

Steam model, May 6, and November 28, 1896.
Gasoline model, August 8, 1903.

Before the tablet was cast, the Wright Brothers were consulted as to the advisability of using this inscription and they, not wishing that anything discreditable to Langley should appear on the tablet. Mr. Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to Secretary Walcott. from which the following is quoted :

“I have often remarked to my brother that Prof. Langley was ill-fated in that he had been especially [p.307] criticized by his enemies for things which were deserving of highest praise and especially praised by his friends for things which were unfortunate lapses from scientific accuracy. I should consider it both unwise and unfair to him to specially rest his reputation in aerodynamics upon the so-called Langley Law, or upon the computation which gave rise to it, as they do not seem to represent his best work. The particular computations which led him to enunciate this law are found on pages 63-67, ‘Experiments in Aerodynamics.’ A careful reading shows that he never actually tried the experiments of which he professed to give the result. ... It is clear from the Doctor's statement that he never demonstrated by direct experiment that weight could be carried at the rate of 200 pounds per horse-power at 20 meters per second, nor that the power consumed decreased with increase of speed up to some remote limit not attained in experiment. He merely assumed that he could have done it by varying the experiments a trifle and based the so-called Langley Law on this mistaken assumption.”

The Regents of the Smithsonian Institution adopted this suggestion and the Langley Law was not inscribed on the tablet.

The Langley Tablet, as it was unveiled at the Smithsonian on 6 May 1913.

An enlargement of the inscription on the tablet.

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