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Otto Lilienthal

glider builder and pilot

Otto Lilienthal

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.

Lilienthal just before making his first flight attempt
Lilienthal just before making his first flight attempt, 1891

Lilienthal taking off from atop building atop his artificial hill
Lilienthal taking off from atop building atop his artificial hill

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

See Also

How Birds Fly

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This page was last updated on 09/15/2018.