Heavier Than Air: Otto Lilienthal

When you ask people about the first airplane flight in human history, the name of the Wright brothers, who made the first motorized flight in history with their Wright Flyer, is often quickly mentioned. But have you ever heard of the Derwitzer Glider?

Otto-lilienthal
Otto Lilienthal

We write the year 1891, 12 years before the Wright Flyer flight. Wilhelm II reigned Germany, Benjamin Harrison was President of the United States (which at that time consisted of only 44 states), and radioactivity hasn’t been discovered yet. And somewhere in Germany, in a city called Derwitz, 43-year-old Otto Lilienthal was about to write history.

Otto Lilienthal was born as one of eight children in 1848. His father was a well-known mathematician, his mother a student of music. When Otto was 12 years old, his father died. The mother, with great efforts, succeeded in giving her children a good education, despite the tremendous economic difficulties brought about by the death of her husband. Together with his brother Gustav, he attended a high school in Berlin from 1856. Already at that time, both studied the flight of birds and carried out first flight experiments.

After a thorough observation of bird movements, the Lilienthal brothers were convinced that human beings could only fly as birds do. In 1889, Lilienthal was able to publish his book Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation, which later became one of the most essential aeronautical publications of the 19th century.


Research of Lilienthal from his book on the flight of a stork

Contemporary attention for the book was low, as the general public favored aviation based on the lighter-than-air principle, the further development of the balloon into an airship. Otto, on the other hand, described this as a false path and emphasized that it must also be possible for people to imitate gliding. This would only require skillful steering, for which the power of man would be sufficient.

With the publication of his book, Otto Lilienthal regarded the theoretical foundation as sufficient to move on to practical gliding exercises, and he built his first flying machine from tree branches and cloth; a machine that is today known as the Derwitzer Glider.

In March 1891 the time had come. Otto Lilienthal took up his position on the slope of an abandoned sandpit in Derwitz, Germany. His theoretical work had paid off. Lilienthal glided for 15 meters with his self-build plane. This does not sound like much, but Lilienthal succeeded in what no one before him had achieved. He became the first person to make and repeat successful heavier-than-air gliding flights.

MuehlenbergDerwitz
The very first flight of Otto Lilienthal in 1891

And he didn’t stop there. Over the course of five years, he built 18 flying machines and increased his range of gliding to about 250 meters. During these years, Lilienthal designed the first aerodynamic devices that allowed one to control the flying machine. Around 1893, Lilienthal began to call his aircraft Flugzeug (English: Airplane).

On August 9th, 1896, Lilienthal was about to conduct another test flight with another glider. However, there was a tragic accident. Lilienthal fell from his glider to the ground from a height of 15 meters and broke his spine. He died the following day.

Otto Lilienthal was a German pioneer of aviation. He is regarded as the first human being to successfully and repeatedly perform gliding flights with a flying machine and thus helped the flight principle “heavier than air” to its first human application. His experimental preliminary work and flight tests led to the physical description of the airplane wing, which is still valid today.

In his book, Wilbur Wright said in 1912 that Lilienthal researched with such diligence and intelligence that his work remains the most significant contribution to flight from the 19th century. “There is no doubt we must thank and honor the biggest pioneer of aviation in the world," wrote Wright.


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That is a well written and interesting post! It very nice how the Wright Brothers gave Otto credit. Usually, that doesn’t happen!

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This is a better history lesson then school ever gave me! Good info, very well written, onya mate

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@Marc… MaxSez: Well researched and written with appreciation for those who lead the way. Giants proceed us in Aviation, their stories deserve repeating and remembering. Da Vinci and Icarus’s come to mind. What next for the air breathers? MaxSends

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Nice thread. These are some cool facts.

And why did I think @Maxmustang made this???

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Thank you Max!

Da Vinci was way ahead of his time. He basically invented sort of an airplane in 1485, more than 500 years ago. He invented a plane 400 years before somebody invented the light bulb. It’s mind blowing.

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Very well written @Marc. Otto Lilienthal definitely deserves a bit more attention.

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