History books, Smithsonian tour guides, and commemorative North Carolina state quarters would have us believe that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. Sure, they managed to launch the first manned, powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight, an improbable feat in its own right. But without the lessons gleaned from nearly a century of ill-informed flight experimentation, they’d never have amounted to squat.
We don’t diminish the Wright’s legacy paying homage to the gliders, calamitous multiplanes, and giant man-lifting kites, that paved their way—but we do open a door to some pretty funky, Victorian-style derring-do.
Much of what we take for granted in modern aircraft—their fixed wings, powered propellers, cockpits, and tails—originated around the turn of the 19th century, in the supple cortical folds of British engineer George Cayley.1
Would-be flight craft powered by flapping wings have actually been around for much longer.2 They’re called ornithopters, a pretty fancy term considering these “machines” are are mostly just some guy with bird feathers glued to his arms, hurtling off a cliff.2
Cayley’s flying machines were definitely a cut above glued bird feathers. The only issue was making them—um—fly. Engines were comically oversized throughout most of the 19th century, and engineers had no real grasp of that mysterious principle of aerodynamic lift.3
At the risk of belaboring a terrible pun, the whole winged flight project was up in the air before it even got off the ground—at least until Otto Lilienthal matriculated onto the scene in the 1870s. Lilienthal launched the first systematic study of wing lift and drag, which proved, among other things, that curved wings work a heck of a lot better than flat ones.4
His table of lift and drag coefficients for various wing types made Lilienthal something of a household name (at least within the vanishingly small subset of households engaged in groundbreaking aeronautical research).4 They also paved the way for the cooler, more insane stage of his career as a hotshot glider impresario.
Between 1891 and 1896, Lilienthal piloted nearly 2000 successful flights on a variety of homebuilt glider aircraft.4 The trips were brief, only 12-15 seconds apiece,4 but they added up. Within no time the man had accrued more hours in winged flight than anyone before him in history.5
As news of “The Winged Prussian” spread far and (presumably) wide, Lilienthal and his then obscure field of heavier-than-air flight were thrust into the international spotlight. For a parasol-twirling, late Victorian public, and for a budding generation of flight researchers, the airplane began to seem like more than just a castle in the decidedly human-free sky.4
Lilienthal hoped the public would overlook the glaring safety deficiencies inherent in his design and join in on the fun.
The idea of signing your kids up for flying lessons at the local flying rink may seem reckless, but this is precisely the sort of trend old Lily hoped to spark. He hoped to turn his death-defying glider experimentation into a national pass time, and thereby entice a more general population of “sport-loving men” to test and improve upon his designs.6
“The air is the freest element; it admits of the most unfettered movement, and the motion through it affords the greatest delight not only to the person flying, but also to those looking on. It is with astonishment and admiration that we follow the air gymnast swinging himself from trapeze to trapeze; but what are these tiny springs as compared to the powerful bound which the sailer in the air is able to take from the top of the hill, and which carries him over the ground for hundreds of yards?”6
He makes a pretty compelling case actually, but we’ll never know what might’ve come of it. In 1896 a glider crash left our crazed visionary with a broken spine and possible intracranial hematoma.7 Lilienthal died the next day, but not before reportedly uttering his famous last words: “Sacrifices must be made!”8
The Wright brothers often cited Lilienthal’s sacrificial flight/grizzly death as the event that inspired them to tackle the airplane,4
Yet while Lilienthal’s aerodynamic research quickly galvanized the development of powered aircraft, the gliders he helped invent dropped out of the popular consciousness for the better part of the next century.
In 1971, flight enthusiasts Jack Lambie and Richard Miller held their very first hang gliding “happening” along the acid soaked hills of late Hippie Orange County. Picked up on by Popular Mechanics and National Geographic, among others, the so-called “Otto Lilienthal Meet” witnessed the birth of the modern sport of hang gliding.9
Aided by aluminium alloys, Dacron sails, and MacReady speed rings, today’s gliders boast stats that would make Lilienthal’s jaw drop (were it not firmly affixed to his maxillofacial musculature). Cross-country pilots can soar from thermal to thermal for hundreds of miles on end whilst battling such arcane dangers as gust fronts and cloud suck. Mysterious polar vortices have even been known to propel sailplane gliders well into the stratosphere, and perhaps someday, to space.
Next time you see someone hurling themselves off a cliff, strapped to what looks like a glorified kite, remember that some German guy was doing the same thing more than a 100 years earlier, with a smattering of sticks and cloth, and even less regard for his own safety. A true mad scientist of the choleric variety, Otto Lilienthal ought to fit right in here on the illustrious, seldom-updated pages of Mad Scientist Blog.
1. Ackroyd, J. A. D. (2002). Sir George Cayley, the father of aeronautics part 1. The invention of the aeroplane. Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 56(2), 167-181.
2. Hart, C. (1985). The Prehistory of Flight. Berkeley, CA: UC Press.
3. Ackroyd, J. A. D. (2002). Sir George Cayley, the father of aeronautics part 2. Cayley’s aeroplanes. Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 56(3), 333-348.
4. Jakab, P. L. (1997). Otto Lilienthal: “The greatest of the precursors.” AIAA Journal, 35(4), 601-607.
5. Stever, H. G., & Haggerty, J. J. (1971). Flight. New York, NY: Time-Life Books.
6. Lilienthal, O. (1895). Flying: Sports and practice. Fliegesport und Fliegepraxis, 4. Retrieved from: http://www.lilienthal-museum.de/olma/el2058.htm
7. Langewiesche, W. (2010). Aloft: Thoughts on the experience of flight. New York, NY: Vintage.
8. Harsch, V., Bardrum, B., & Illig, P. (2008). Lilienthal’s fatal glider crash in 1896: Evidence regarding the cause of death. Aviation, Space, and Evnironmental Medicine, 79(10), 993-994.
9. Wills, M. (1981). Manbirds: Hang gliders and hang gliding. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Check out the Otto Lilienthal Museum website for more info: http://www.lilienthal-museum.de/olma/ehome.htm