It was only sixteen feet long and was shaped like a needle or, better still, a dragonfly. On board, it had a tiny steam engine that could deliver one horsepower to the wooden propeller.
It was a lazy day in the month of May, 1896, when it was launched by catapult from the deck of a houseboat on the Potomac River. The little craft circled round and round, rose to an altitiude of more than 100 feet, and then landed in the water after a flight that had lasted for ninety seconds.
It was a major victory. A heavier-than-air craft had made a smooth, perfect flight. Its inventor was Samuel Pierpont Langley. Had the steam-powered plane been big and powerful enough to carry a man aloft, Langley would have been known as the inventor of the airplane.
As it was, Langley built a much larger version of the plane, which was launched on December 8, 1903. Sadly for Langley, the craft flew only a moment before it crashed into the river.
Nine days later, the Wright brothers made four short but perfectly controlled flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.