Otto Lilienthal was born in
Anklam, in what is now Germany, on May 23, 1848.
He attended grammar school in Anklam, and from an
early age was fascinated with birds and how they
fly. He attended the Regional Technical School in
Potsdam from 1864 to 1866, studied mechanical
engineering at the Schwartzkopf Company of Berlin
from 1866 to 1867, and attended the Royal
Technical Academy in Berlin from 1867 to 1870.
After a brief stint as a volunteer fusilier
during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871),
Lilienthal became a mechanical engineer at the
Weber Company of Berlin. In 1872, he became a
construction engineer for the C. Hoppe Machine
Factory of Berlin. In 1883, he opened his own
mechanical engineering company, specializing in
boilers and steam engines.
Lilienthal began experimenting
with flight in 1867, concentrating initially on
the physical basics of human flight. In 1873, he
and his brother Gustav became members of the
Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, before
which he gave a public lecture concerning the
principles of bird flight. In 1886, he became a
member of Deutscher Verein zur Förderung der
Luftschiffahrt (German Association for Promotion
of Airship Navigation).
In 1889, Lilienthal published Der
Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst (Birdflight
as the Basis of Aviation), in which he
examined in detail the types and structures of
bird wings, as well as the method and
aerodynamics of bird flight. In the book,
Lilienthal described how birds propel themselves
by the twisting action of their outer primary
feathers, and determined how the curve of a
bird's wing was necessary to flight because it
offered more resistance than a flat surface.
Having determined how birds were able to fly,
Lilienthal was now prepared to prove that man
could also fly.
Lilienthal built and flew his first
glider in 1891. His first flights only went a few
feet, but he gradually improved his design and
succeeded in soaring up to 80 feet. By 1892, he
was able to fly up to 270 feet. In 1894 he built an artificial hill at
his home near Berlin from which he could more
easily test his gliders; to take off he would
either run down the hill and leap into the face
of the wind, or launch himself from the top of a
13-foot shed at the summit. Using this hill he
tested a total of eighteen different models of
glider, and made over 2,000 flights.
Despite Lilienthal's successes,
all of his glider designs shared one major flaw
-- lack of steering ability. Although Lilienthal
could maintain basic stability in flight by
moving his body back and forth in the harness, he
was never able to develop a method whereby he
could actually direct the path of flight. On
August 9, 1896, Lilienthal's glider crashed when
he attempted to steer through a heat eddy; he
died in Berlin the next day, of a broken spine.
Otto Lilienthal Museum www.lilienthal-museum.de
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