Humans have dreamed about flying from ancient times. Our ancestors portrayed these dreams on the cave walls, created and told myths about flying Gods, but, for the longest time, it was believed that human flight was impossible.
Photo by: Otto Lilienthal Museum
In the 19th century, various inventors tried to make the impossible possible, before the Wright brothers created an airplane.
Twelve years before the Wright brothers flew, in 1891, a German engineer named Otto Lilienthal made a historic flight in his Derwitzer glider, an unpowered hang glider of his own invention, in a rural area west of Potsdam.
The next day after his birthday (May 23rd) we commemorate this great man, known worldwide as the “flying man” or the “glider man,” but, not to forget, was also an inventor of the "Anker-Steinbaukasten" (stone building blocks for children), a business owner who was one of the first to introduce a profit sharing scheme for the workers of his company, a holder of 23 patents (four of which were aviation patents), an aviation researcher, and an author of Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation.
Lilienthal was born in the town of Anklam, in the Prussian province of Pomerania in 1848. He was fascinated by the flight of birds, to the point of building sets of artificial wings with the help of his brother Gustav. There is no evidence of these early flying machines working, but they set Otto on a path that would eventually put flight in human hands.
He began working as an engineer and would later go on to start his own machine company, producing steam engines. However, he never stopped doing research on the flight of birds — storks in particular — and continued to test gliders of his own design. His first public test was in 1891, at the Windmühlenberg near Potsdam. Over the course of the next years, he conducted flying tests at several locations, but finding a suitable hill proved to be a challenge. In 1894, he decided to solve the problem once and for all and built his own hill at the site of a former brickyard. The hill, located in the Berlin district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, witnessed numerous flight attempts by the pioneer and still exists today.
From that first flight until his death, Lilienthal completed more than 2,000 gliding flights using many different designs, with a personal total of five hours flying time, which was probably the most important in aviation history, according to the Otto Lilienthal Museum. He died in August 1896 the day after his accident, when his glider stalled, and he fell from about 15 meters to the ground.
“Men can learn to fly as well as birds if they will only exercise a little patience,” said Otto Lilienthal a few years before his death. He believed that the first principle of flying was the ability to glide like a bird; only after successfully mastering that skill would one be able to fly with movable wings. Lilienthal’s groundbreaking technical book Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation (1889) revolutionized the field of aviation, and his death was a huge inspiration for the Wright brothers to start building their aircraft.
Lilienthal’s last words, as reported by his sister-in-law more than 30 years later and repeated many times since “Opfer müssen gebracht werden” or “sacrifices must be made” has been an inspiration for many future aviators and was also inscribed on his gravestone.
His testing ground Fliegeberg near Lichterfelde became Lilienthalpark in 1900, and in 1932, a monument to Lilienthal’s memory was built at the Fliegeberg’s peak. Designed by architect Fritz Freymüller, it is a bronze globe surrounded by a circular pavilion which is open in the middle, leaving the globe exposed to the sky. The original globe was melted down during World War II and was eventually replaced in 1990. The current globe is inscribed with the paths of famous flights, in honor of the great achievements that Otto Lilienthal inspired, but never lived to see.
Before You Go:
Park: while far from any U- or S-Bahn stations, the park has a bus stop near the entrance: Lilienthalpark, line 284.
Film: artist and filmmaker Johannes Hogebrink, working with the Otto Lilienthal Museum in Germany, has gathered 145 still images of Lilienthal and put them in sequence; the result shows for the very first time Lilienthal’s amazing accomplishment.
Museum: located in Anklam, it’s about a 2-hour drive north from Berlin.
Airport: you can think of Otto Lilienthal when remembering Berlin’s Tegel airport. It carried his name.