“To invent an airplane is nothing,” Otto Lilienthal said. “To build one is something. But to fly is everything.”
These words were the motto of the German aviation pioneer, who spent his life constructing innovative glider designs and experimenting with flight, serving as an inspiration to the next generation of aviators.
Born in 1848 in a small Prussian town, Lilienthal first became interested in human flight in 1867. After tirelessly studying the movement of bird wings, Lilienthal started experimenting with large winged apparatuses made from wood and cloth. These experiments soon evolved into gliders and single-person flying devices.
Lilienthal’s attempted his first flight in 1891, taking off from an artificial hill he built near Berlin and gliding for 80 feet. In the years after his first attempt, he created at least ten more distinct models of aircraft, eventually reaching a record gliding distance of 820 feet. Reports of Lilienthal’s efforts soon spread across Germany and the world, with photographs featured in scientific and popular publications. He soon became known as the “Glider King.”
Lilienthal recognized the importance of weight distribution in his gliders. His gliders were controllable by changing the center of gravity in flight, much like modern hang gliders. However, unlike hang gliders, Lilienthal would strap himself into his gliders by the shoulders and was able to move only his lower body when shifting weight.
During a test flight on August 9, 1896, Lilienthal’s glider collapsed, causing him to fall from a height of over 50 feet and suffer severe injuries. Lilienthal died the following day. While his flying career was brief, Lilienthal is widely recognized as one of the most important early pioneers of aviation. The Wright Brothers studied Lilienthal’s research early on in their own studies and credited him as a major inspiration for their pursuit of manned flight.
There are well over 100 preserved photographs of Lilienthal’s flying apparatuses and flying attempts, many of superior quality for the time. You can view more of these photos at the Otto Lilienthal Museum’s website.