Otto Lilienthal, Aeronautical Pioneer, Is Born

Otto Lilienthal, German inventor and aeronautical pioneer whose studies formed the foundation for the Wright brothers’ aeronautical advances, was born on this day in 1848.

Born to middle-class parents in Anklam, Pomerania Provice, Prussia, Lilienthal was fascinated by the idea of manned flight from a young age. He studied the flight of birds with his brother Gustav in grammar school and made strap-on wings, with which the boys attempted, and failed, to fly. Lilienthal attended a regional technical school, trained at the Schwarzkopf Company, attended the Royal Technical Academy in Berlin, and became a professional design engineer. He worked as a staff engineer in the Franco-Prussian War and received his first patent for a mining machine. Still fascinated by flight, however, he continued his experiments and published his famous book, Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation, in 1889.

Among Lilienthal’s greatest contributions to the study of flight were his advances in heavier-than-air flight, specifically his hang gliders. In 1891, he drew a sketch of a triangle control frame hang glider with a complex base bar and lower double kingposts. The US Patent he filed for in 1894 directed the pilot to grip the bar for carrying and flying his hang glider. Working with his brother Gustav, Lilienthal made more than 2,000 flights in hang gliders of his design starting in 1891, for a total flying time of five hours. He made his flights from an artificial hill he built near Berlin, as well as from natural hills in the Rhinow region. In the beginning, his flights covered some 24 metres. By 1893 he achieved flight distances as high as 350 metres, a record until his death. Photographs were made of his flights and word spread about the “father of flight.” During his career, Lilienthal developed 18 different flying craft models, including 15 monoplanes and three biplanes.

On 9 August 1896 during a hang gliding session in his own “Normal Glider” in the Rhinow Hills, Lilienthal died in a hang gliding crash. His research and experiments were a major inspiration to the Wright brothers, who pursued flight largely on the foundation of Lilienthal’s research. “Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the 19th century, Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important,” Wilbur Wright once said.