Otto Lilienthal, the Glider King

Otto Lilienthal and his flying apparatus

On May 23, 1848, German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal was born, who was the first person to make well-documented, repeated, successful gliding flights. For his contributions to aviation he is often referred to as “The Father of Flight.”

Otto Lilienthal received a good education at a grammar school in Anklam despite the sudden death of his father and the financial struggles of his family. In the 1860’s, Otto Lilienthal moved to Potsdam, Germany, where he began an apprenticeship at local engineering works.

In the later years of the same decade, Otto Lilienthal along with his brother completed first tests of buoyancy, which they created with flapping of wings. As a result, a maximum of 40kg was lifted. In contemporary physical studies, the exact features of buoyancy were not clear yet, and the opinions on Lilienthal’s flying attempts polarized. By the end of the 1860’s, he received a scholarship to study at Berlin’s Technical University. Through inventions and risky experiments, Lilienthal earned himself a good reputation in early years. While stationed in Paris, the curious inventor noticed the frequently flying hot air balloons and he admired their success.

Motivated to start his own business as well, Lilienthal and his brother intended to patent some of their inventions, like the Stirling engine (as it was known later on), but stayed unsuccessful. In the 1880’s, the brother’s financial outcome finally improved. They constructed a kind of boiler that sold well and let the company grow up to 60 employees. Also they began distributing the ‘Normalsegelapparat’ (“Normal soaring apparatus”), a glider that became known as the very first widely sold airplane in history. The brothers then also led the first aircraft factory in the world.

The fundamentals to the success of his flying apparatus depicted a long term theoretical understanding of flight and physics. Lilienthal himself published one of the most important books on the techniques and possibilities of flight based on the experiments he made. He explained in detail his knowledge on the importance of a wings shape and angles when operated and demonstrated arguments pro wing based machines instead of hot air balloons, which were preferred widely throughout Europe. The Brothers Wright later noted that Lilienthal’s theoretical foundations influenced their plans for the later constructed airplane.

When it came to taking the theoretical foundations to actual experiments, Otto Lilienthal’s brother Gustav quit, wherefore Otto is now the one credited for the most achievements. With the beginning of the 1890’s, he began looking for places near Berlin to jump off small hills. He achieved flight lengths of about 250m with his gliding apparatus, which he edited and improved after every attempt. Lilienthal even began constructing engine powered wings for his glider, but could never use them due to his tragic accident in 1896. Otto Lilienthal’s achievements wrote history, he became known and admired world wide, and was awarded numerous times posthumously for his courage and his inventive genius.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a talk by Marc Millis on the future of flight.

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