small text medium text large text

North Side: Samuel Pierpont Langley


Samuel Pierpont Langley
BORN: 22 August 1834.(68)
DIED: 27 February 1906.(69) 
BURIED: Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston.(70) 

A Biographical Sketch of S. P. Langley

From Miscellaneous Scientific Papers of the Allegheny Observatory--New Series. No.19, by John A Brashear; Reprinted from Popular Astronomy, Vol. XIV, 1906.

"The man of grand impulses sheds a lustre on all around him."
A great man has gone to his rest. A life filled with the highest aspirations has closed and we are left to mourn the loss of one whose place will be difficult to fill. The writer was associated with Professor Langley for more than thirty years, and in all those years he has only pleasant, aye delightful recollections of his personality, his magnificent intellect--one never satisfied with a half proven hypothesis--but always reaching out for final proof before he announced any of his great discoveries.

Not every man who came in contact with Professor Langley knew him as the writer knew him. Many times he walked for miles with him. During the walk nothing would escape his lips but monosyllables. Was he cold--indifferent--callous to the questioner? Far from it. Some difficult--perhaps intricate problem in solar physics or other correlated study had taken possession of his mind to the exclusion of all else, and I have often thought that his "yes" or "no" to my questions were almost of an automatic character.

But how different at other times during our walks from the old Observatory to the nearest woods where now is erected the new Astronomical Observatory. Charming was his conversation from the beginning to the end of our stroll. When in this mood no man could be more entertaining and instructive than Professor Langley--indeed some of the most delightful remembrances of my long association with him came to me as I recall these delightful walks and talks.

When he was writing his New Astronomy--he would invite me to come to the Observatory in the evening and read to me a chapter of that splendid book. I call to mind the closing paragraphs of two that impressed me greatly, as he read them and for fear I may not quote verbatim I refer to this chapter on the Moon where, in closing his charming description of its scenery, he says:

Let us leave here the desolation about us, happy that we can come back at will to that world, our own familiar dwelling where the meadows are still green and the birds still sing, and where better yet still dwells our own kind--surely the world, of all we have found in our wanderings, which we should ourselves have chosen to be our home.

Let me also quote the closing paragraph of his chapter on the Stars, which I heard him read "in the long ago," a beautiful illustration of the life history of man as compared to that of the stars:

I have read somewhere a story about a race of ephemeral insects who live about an hour. To those who are born in the early morning the sunrise is the time of youth. They die of old age while his beams are yet gathering force, and only their descendants live on to midday; while it is another race which sees the Sun decline, from that which saw him rise. Imagine the Sun about to set, and the whole nation of mites gathered under the shadow of some mushroom (to them ancient as the Sun itself) to hear what their wisest philosopher has to say of the gloomy prospect. If I remember aright, he first told them that, incredible as it might seem, there was not only a time in the world's youth when the mushroom itself was young, but that the Sun in those early ages was in the eastern, not in the western sky. Since then, he explained, the eyes of scientific ephemera had followed it, and established by induction from vast experience the great "Law of Nature," that it moved only westward; and he showed that since it was now nearing the western horizon, science itself pointed to the conclusion that it was about to disappear forever, together with the great race of ephemera for whom it was created.
What his hearers thought of this discourse I do not remember, but I have heard that the Sun rose again the next morning.

Professor Langley was a lover of children. I have heard it from many friends whose homes he visited, how he would gather the little ones around him and tell them fairy stories, many of which he would improvise with wonderful tact to please the children.

A Washington lady had made several attempts to converse with Professor Langley--at receptions--upon his scientific investigations but failing to get the response desired, in her despair she asked him one evening what he did like to talk about. He quickly replied, "Children and fairy stories."

His beloved niece--the daughter of Professor John W. Langley who attended him in his last illness--told the writer that he took with him from Washington one of Andrew Lang's fairy story books which he read during his all too brief stay in South Carolina.

The writer of this brief sketch of Professor Langley's life feels totally inadequate for the task, but deems it a great pleasure to place on record some of the lovely traits of a character on the side of "the humanities"--separate and distinct from his scientific work, for with all that apparent "calmest coldness" there was something reaching almost to the transcendental in his inner life--which my long acquaintance and association brought to light. I have given but a few instances of these pleasant reminiscences, instances which could be multiplied many times.

The writer can never forget the generous help given him in the solution of optical problems, from the very beginning of his acquaintance with Professor Langley. I never visited the Smithsonian Institution while he was there, that he did not call to my mind the first night we met, when, with fear and trembling, I unwrapped from a red bandana handkerchief my first five-inch objective on which my wife and I had worked the spare time of three years. We had met with many discouragements and failures but that night I received such generous words of encouragement that the subsequent work on the objective was made easier by far.

Several years afterward when the writer had the good fortune to discover a method of polishing the rocksalt lenses and prisms for his spectro-bolometric research--and giving them an accurate optical surface, his joy seemed to have no bounds, and I have letters from him expressive of his gratification, that are prized beyond measure.

It would be presumption for the writer to undertake to dilate upon the scientific labors of Professor Langley. They are too well known to the scientific world and especially to the readers of Popular Astronomy, to need repetition here, but a brief recapitulation of some of his more important work may not be without interest.

Professor Langley came by invitation to the Allegheny Observatory in 1867. Two years afterwards, 1869, he introduced standard time distribution to the cities and railroads. Inasmuch as there has been a great deal of controversy over the question of priority in this matter, a discussion of which would be out of place here, I will simply quote from an article written by Professor Langley more than twenty years ago.

"A mention of the Observatory's work would be incomplete without some account of its system of time distribution introduced by its present director in 1869. Previous to that date, time had been sent in occasional instances from American Observatories for public use but in a temporary or casual manner."
"The Allegheny system, inaugurated in that year, is believed to be the parent of the present ones used in this country in that it was so far as is known the first regular and systematic system of time distribution to railroads and cities adopting it as an official standard."

At the time this article was written signals were being sent over 4713 miles of railroad from the Allegheny Observatory. The closing paragraph of the article referred to will be of interest.

"For the benefit of any future writer of the history of the subject it may be stated that in 1870 the Allegheny Observatory had already in extended operation the system of time distribution above described; that about 1873 the director at Cambridge Observatory, after conference with the writer, introduced substantially the same provisions for connecting Harvard College Observatory with the New England roads; and that about the same time the Washington Observatory, which had previously sent signals in a limited and desultory manner, commenced to do so in emulation of the new system."

Professor Langley made good use of the income derived from the time service for the commencement of that long series of solar researches--which have added so much to our knowledge of the Sun. He was an exquisite draughtsman--as can be testified by the hundreds of beautiful drawings of solar phenomena made by him. Every student of Astronomy has seen reproductions of his charming drawing of the great sun-spot of December 1873--which has indeed become classic as a "typical" sun-spot. The sky of Allegheny with its murkiness often contributes to fine definition on the Sun, as the writer can testify, he having seen the delicate detail of the penumbral fringes come out like unto a steel engraving. The halcyon days of astronomical photography had not yet come when Professor Langley made his beautiful drawings.

Fortunately for Professor Langley's great work of the future, William Thaw, the staunch friend of the Observatory and one of the pioneers in its construction and equipment, became deeply interested in the director's solar work, and aided him in many ways. The income of the Observatory was so limited that little could be done in experimental research until William Thaw with a most liberal hand and heart provided the means for carrying on this great work, and your readers will find at the close of almost every monograph written by Professor Langley--"This research was made possible through the liberality of a citizen of Pittsburg." By Mr. Thaw's request his name was never mentioned.

In his studies in the domain of solar physics, Professor Langley was early impressed with the idea that much of the radiant energy from the Sun was not recognized by the instruments then in use and after a long series of experiments, discovered and developed that marvelously delicate instrument, the bolometer. With the bolometer a series of investigations were commenced upon the Sun, Moon and stars, which were continued for many years, bringing to light some of the most important facts in the whole realm of astronomical physics.

Professor Langley, with his assistants, Professor Keeler, Professor Very, and Mr. Page, continued the study of the hitherto unknown region of solar radiation until the bolographic chart, reaching far down into the spectrum, and showing almost innumerable curves of selective absorption, was given to the world, as a most valuable contribution to our knowledge of radiant energy. Although this great work was thought to be nearly completed before Professor Langley accepted the secretaryship of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, he had continued the experimental research in the same field, at the astrophysical observatory connected with the Institution with a more refined equipment, but instead of the visual, using the photographic method, yet nothing has developed to change the results of the Allegheny Observatory research. After years of study at Allegheny upon the problem of the selective absorption of the Earth's atmosphere at the lower levels, Professor Langley desired to make a similar investigation at a very high altitude. The top of Mt. Whitney in southern California was selected, as well as a station about two miles below the peak. William Thaw provided most of the means for the now famous expedition, our own government sharing in the expenses of the research. Professor Keeler and Dr. William Day assisted Professor Langley in the work of this expedition, the results of which have now become classic, indeed have to a large degree settled the problem of the selective absorption of the Earth's atmosphere in its relations to the Sun's radiant energy, and the intimately correlated problem of life upon our globe. Professor Langley found time to study many minor though important questions bearing upon radiant energy, not alone from the Sun, but from other sources. His studies of the Moon's temperature added immensely to our knowledge of the "lesser light that rules the night." With the spectrobolometer, the highest temperature of the Moon was found to be about zero centigrade, and the lowest temperature not far from the temperature of space.

Professor Langley's work in mapping the invisible spectrum was a herculean task. Aided by Professors Keeler, Very and Page, thousands of measurements were made with the spectrobolometer and read visually, before the photographic method was devised and developed so beautifully by Professor Langley and his co-workers at the Smithsonian. Well do I remember how many times the rocksalt trains were brought over to our workshop from the old Allegheny Observatory say about ten o'clock in the morning of a bright day, with the request that they be polished and figured by noon! I do not remember ever to have disappointed these good people in the matter of their request.

More recently Professor Langley became deeply interested in the problem of variable solar radiation, in which he was greatly assisted by Mr. Abbot and his associates, and although the research had not been completed at the time of his death--he was convinced by results already obtained, that our Sun is a variable with rather a larger coefficient than has ever been suspected.

Of his work in the domain of aerodromics the writer wishes to say a few words. The story is a long one of how Professor Langley became interested in the problem of flight--but suffice it to say here that his original purpose was not to construct a flying machine but if possible to determine the laws governing flight, and I am sure that Professor Very and others associated with Professor Langley will bear me out in this that he undertook to solve it in a rigorously scientific manner. His invention of the dynamometer chronograph aided largely in this research. Nothing was left to guess at--every experiment with birds and aeroplanes was as carefully carried out as were his astrophysical studies. For three years the writer was associated with his friend Professor Langley in his investigations on this great problem, and I must add my testimony to that of others that everything was conducted in the true scientific spirit--and though in his later work on mechanical flight at the Smithsonian, success or failure cheered or depressed him--he has left on record most valuable facts that must be of inestimable value to those who desire to push forward this fascinating study.

Professor Langley received many honors during his life time. To be called as the successor of Professor Baird as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was the highest gift in a scientific sense that could be conferred upon him by his country. Oxford conferred upon him the degree of D. C. L., Cambridge, the degree of D. Sc., Harvard, Princeton, University of Michigan and the University of Washington, conferred upon him the degree of LL. D.

He was correspondent of the French Academy, a Foreign member of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and other scientific associations. He received the Henry Draper, Count Rumford, Janssen, and other medals for his splendid discoveries.

Many of Professor Langley's works had great literary beauty. One has only to read the pages of his "New Astronomy" to be charmed with the beauty and clearness of his methods, and no matter how abstruse the subject, he seemed to have the ability to make it plain and thus appreciated even to the lay reader, who, though not an investigator, had a love for the subject discussed.

Professor Langley had a deep interest in all that related to things of the mind, and was for many years associated with both the American and British Associations for Physical Research. He was an omnivorous reader of everything that was best in English and French literature, and was especially interested in George Borrow. He was the owner of a considerable collection of Borrow's manuscripts, and was a student of French history and memoirs. His interest in the fine arts was keen, and he had many times visited the galleries of Europe and knew the great pictures everywhere. The orient had a fascination for him, and he had a collection of the editions of the "Arabian Nights." As a young man he was a great admirer of Thomas Carlyle, with whom he had an acquaintance, and to whose home he made several pilgrimages. He had a great love for little children, and the "children's room" in the Smithsonian building was the result of his personal care and attention.

Professor Langley was born in Roxbury, Mass., August twenty-second, 1834. On the twenty-second of November last he suffered a slight stroke of paralysis but recovered sufficiently to be taken to Aiken, S. C., where he was attended by a faithful nurse and his beloved niece, the daughter of his brother, Professor John W. Langley. Professor Langley wrote several letters from Aiken to his friends, particularly to those associated with him in the Smithsonian Institution, and great hopes were entertained that his recovery was only a matter of time, but it was not so to be. A second stroke came as "a thief in the night" but brought no pain to our friend--and after two days of apparently quiet sleep, broken at intervals--he passed away to the "Summer Land of Song," on the twenty-seventh day of February, 1906. His body was brought to Washington and the funeral was held in All Souls Church. The venerable Edward Everett Hale, an old time friend of Professor Langley, spoke most fitting and kindly words at the brief services. The Regents of the Smithsonian Institution acted as honorary pall bearers, and the members of the Smithsonian staff as active pall bearers.

The remains were taken to Boston in a private car, where they were laid away in Forest Hills Cemetery by the side of his mother. His intimate friend Dr. Adler informed the writer that this was Professor Langley's expressed wish. A short address was delivered at the cemetery by his friend Alexander Graham Bell, in which he gave a brief resume of Professor Langley's life work.

When Napoleon stood at the edge of the battlefield where a great victory had been won by his soldiers, his ears were deaf to the groans of the wounded and dying, he heard them not, but said to his generals--in the ecstasy of victory
"C'est magnifique."

When our own Langley stood on the summit of the old Allegheny hills where so much of his life work had been done--and watched the Sun setting in all his glory, we heard him exclaim--"It is magnificent." Now that he is gone, and we look over the fields of science where he has won his grand but bloodless victories--we can but add our final tribute by repeating the words--"It is magnificent."

Allegheny, Penn.


People. Narrative. Outline. Neighborhoods. Main Menu.