Samuel P. Langley had been interested in flight, he said, "...as long as I can remember anything." He began aerial experimentation in earnest early in 1887 while employed at the Allegheny Observatory in Pennsylvania, where he had taught physics and astronomy, as well as being director of the observatory. While at Allegheny he built a large whirling table upon which he began a series of "Experiments In Aerodynamics." By mid-January of 1887, Langley was living in Washington, D.C., employed as Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and as of that April he was building rubber band powered model "rubber-pull aerodromes"
. Langley and his assistants eventually built and tested over 100 of the model "aerodromes" and managed to secure flights of from 6 to 8 seconds and distances of between 80 and 100 feet. On the death of the head of the Smithsonian in November of 1887, Langley assumed the top post of Secretary. In 1889 he tested stuffed birds on the whirling table; a frigate bird, a California condor and an albatross, with the result that none of them would lift as a live bird ought.
In 1891 Langley experimented with steam-engine powered Aerodromes, beginning the series which would lead to the human-carrying machine of 1903. The first of these was designated Aerodrome No. 0 and proved a failure. The second machine, Aerodrome No. 1, was powered by a carbonic acid gas and later by compressed air. Aerodrome No. 2, also built in 1891 was also a disappointment. Aerodrome No. 3 (1892) was of stronger construction and was modified a number of times. A better means of heating the steam was tested on Aerodrome No. 3 and was a decided improvement and was incorporated into Aerodrome No. 4. By the end of 1893 Aerodrome No. 4 was ready for testing and a launching device atop a house boat