Otto Lilienthal

Last updated
Otto Lilienthal
Otto Lilienthal, c. 1896
Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal

(1848-05-23)23 May 1848
Died10 August 1896(1896-08-10) (aged 48)
Cause of deathGlider crash
Resting place Lankwitz Cemetery, Berlin
Nationality Prussian, German
EducationCollege Mechanical Engineer Major
Known forSuccessful gliding experiments
Net worth$200,000
Agnes Fischer(m. 18781896)
Children4 [1]
Relatives Gustav Lilienthal, brother

Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal (23 May 1848 10 August 1896) was a German pioneer of aviation who became known as the "flying man". [2] He was the first person to make well-documented, repeated, successful flights with gliders. [3] Newspapers and magazines published photographs of Lilienthal gliding, favourably influencing public and scientific opinion about the possibility of flying machines becoming practical. On 9 August 1896, his glider stalled and he was unable to regain control. Falling from about 15 m (50 ft), he broke his neck and died the next day, 10 August 1896.


Early life

Lilienthal was born on 23 May 1848 in Anklam, Pomerania Province, German kingdom of Prussia. According to his baptism certificate, [4] his parents were Gustav and Caroline née Pohle. They belonged to the St. Nikolai evangelical church community in Anklam, where he later attended grammar school, and where he eventually studied the flight of birds with his brother Gustav (1849–1933). [5] Fascinated by the idea of manned flight, Lilienthal and his brother made strap-on wings, but failed in their attempts to fly. He then attended the regional technical school in Potsdam for two years and trained at the Schwarzkopf Company before becoming a professional design engineer. He would later attend the Royal Technical Academy in Berlin.

In 1867, Lilienthal began experiments on the force of air in earnest, interrupted when he served in the Franco-Prussian War. As a staff engineer in various engineering companies, Lilienthal received his first patent for a mining machine. Five years later he founded his own company to make boilers and steam engines. [6] Lilienthal published his famous book Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation in 1889.

Lilienthal was born to middle-class parents. They had eight children, but only three of them survived infancy: Otto, Gustav, and Marie. [7] The brothers worked together all their lives on technical, social, and cultural projects.

On 6 June 1878, Lilienthal married Agnes Fischer, daughter of a deputy. Music brought them together; she was trained in piano and voice while Lilienthal played the French horn and had a good tenor voice. [8] After marriage, they took up residence in Berlin and had four children: Otto, Anna, Fritz, and Frida. [1]

Experiments in flight

Mechanics of white stork flight in his Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst (1889) Whitestorkflight.png
Mechanics of white stork flight in his Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst (1889)
Lilienthal in mid-flight, c. 1895 Otto Lilienthal gliding experiment ppmsca.02546.jpg
Lilienthal in mid-flight, c. 1895

Lilienthal's greatest contribution was in the development of heavier-than-air flight. He made his flights from an artificial hill he built near Berlin and from natural hills, especially in the Rhinow region.

The filing of a U.S. Patent in 1894 by Lilienthal directed pilots to grip the "bar" for carrying and flying the hang glider. [9] The A-frame of Percy Pilcher and Lilienthal echoes in today's control frame for hang gliders and ultralight aircraft. Working in conjunction with his brother Gustav, Lilienthal made over 2,000 flights in gliders of his design starting in 1891 with his first glider version, the Derwitzer, until his death in a gliding crash in 1896. His total flying time was five hours. [10]

At the beginning, in 1891, Lilienthal succeeded with jumps and flights covering a distance of about 25 metres (82 ft). He could use the updraft of a 10 m/s wind against a hill to remain stationary with respect to the ground, shouting to a photographer on the ground to manoeuvre into the best position for a photo. In 1893, in the Rhinow Hills, he was able to achieve flight distances as long as 250 metres (820 ft). This record remained unbeaten for him or anyone else at the time of his death. [10]

Lilienthal did research in accurately describing the flight of birds, especially storks, and used polar diagrams for describing the aerodynamics of their wings. He made many experiments in an attempt to gather reliable aeronautical data.


Models of his gliders Lilienthalgleiter modelle.jpg
Models of his gliders
Restored 1894 glider displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It is one of five surviving Lilienthal gliders in the world. Lilienthal hang glider.jpg
Restored 1894 glider displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It is one of five surviving Lilienthal gliders in the world.

During his short flying career, Lilienthal developed a dozen models of monoplanes, wing flapping aircraft and two biplanes. [11] His gliders were carefully designed to distribute weight as evenly as possible to ensure a stable flight. Lilienthal controlled them by changing the center of gravity by shifting his body, much like modern hang gliders. However they were difficult to maneuvre and had a tendency to pitch down, from which it was difficult to recover. One reason for this was that he held the glider by his shoulders, rather than hanging from it like a modern hang glider. Only his legs and lower body could be moved, which limited the amount of weight shift he could achieve.

Lilienthal made many attempts to improve stability with varying degrees of success. These included making a biplane which halved the wing span for a given wing area, and by having a hinged tailplane that could move upwards to make the flare at the end of a flight easier. He speculated that flapping wings of birds might be necessary and had begun work on such a powered aircraft.

The unveiling ceremony of the new monument in Berlin. Gustav (left) and Paul Baylich, August 1932 Bundesarchiv Bild 102-13741, Gustav Lilienthal und Paul Baylich.jpg
The unveiling ceremony of the new monument in Berlin. Gustav (left) and Paul Baylich, August 1932

While his lifelong pursuit was flight, Lilienthal was also an inventor and devised a small engine that worked on a system of tubular boilers. [13] His engine was much safer than the other small engines of the time. This invention gave him the financial freedom to focus on aviation. His brother Gustav (1849–1933) was living in Australia at the time, and Lilienthal did not engage in aviation experiments until his brother's return in 1885. [14]

There are 25 known Lilienthal patents. [15]

Test locations

Lilienthal performed his first gliding attempts in mid-1891 at the so-called "Windmühlenberg" near to the villages of Krielow and Derwitz which are located west of Potsdam. [16]

In 1892, Lilienthal's training area was a hill formation called "Maihöhe" in Steglitz, Berlin. He built a 4 metres (13 ft) high shed, in the shape of a tower, on top of it. This way, he obtained a "jumping off" place 10 metres (33 ft) high. The shed served also for storing his apparatus. [17]

In 1893, Lilienthal also started to perform gliding attempts in the "Rhinower Berge", at the "Hauptmannsberg" near to Rhinow and later, 1896, at the "Gollenberg" near to Stölln. [18]

In 1894, Lilienthal built an artificial conical hill near his home in Lichterfelde, called Fliegeberg (lit. "Fly Hill"). [19] It allowed him to launch his gliders into the wind no matter which direction it was coming from. [11] The hill was 15 metres (49 ft) high. There was a regular crowd of people that were interested in seeing his gliding experiments. [20]

In 1932, the Fliegeberg was redesigned by a Berlin architect Fritz Freymüller as a memorial to Lilienthal. [21] On top of the hill was built a small temple-like construction, consisting of pillars supporting a slightly sloping round roof. Inside is placed a silver globe inscribed with particulars of famous flights. [22] Lilienthal's brother Gustav and the old mechanic and assistant Paul Baylich attended the unveiling ceremony on 10 August 1932 (36 years after Otto's death).

Worldwide notice

Reports of Lilienthal's flights spread in Germany and elsewhere, with photographs appearing in scientific and popular publications. [23] Among those who photographed him were pioneers such as Ottomar Anschütz and American physicist Robert Williams Wood. He soon became known as the "father of flight" as he had successfully controlled a heavier-than-air aircraft in sustained flight.

Lilienthal was a member of the Verein zur Förderung der Luftschifffahrt , and regularly detailed his experiences in articles in its journal, the Zeitschrift für Luftschifffahrt und Physik der Atmosphäre, and in the popular weekly publication Prometheus. These were translated in the United States, France and Russia. Many people from around the world came to visit him, including Samuel Pierpont Langley from the United States, Russian Nikolai Zhukovsky, Englishman Percy Pilcher and Austrian Wilhelm Kress. Zhukovsky wrote that Lilienthal's flying machine was the most important invention in the aviation field. Lilienthal corresponded with many people, among them Octave Chanute, James Means, Alois Wolfmüller and other flight pioneers.

Final flight

On 9 August 1896, Lilienthal went, as on previous weekends, to the Rhinow Hills. The day was very sunny and not too hot (about 20 °C, or 68 °F). The first flights were successful, reaching a distance of 250 metres (820 ft) in his normal glider. During the fourth flight Lilienthal's glide pitched forward heading down quickly. Lilienthal had previously had difficulty in recovering from this position because the glider relied on weight shift which was difficult to achieve when pointed at the ground. His attempts failed and he fell from a height of about 15 metres (49 ft), while still in the glider. [24]

Paul Beylich, Lilienthal's glider mechanic, transported him by horse-drawn carriage to Stölln, where he was examined by a physician. Lilienthal had a fracture of the third cervical vertebra and soon became unconscious. Later that day he was transported in a cargo train to Lehrter train station in Berlin, and the next morning to the clinic of Ernst von Bergmann, one of the most famous and successful surgeons in Europe at the time. Lilienthal died there a few hours later (about 36 hours after the crash).

There are differing accounts of Lilienthal's last words. A popular account, inscribed on his tombstone, is "Opfer müssen gebracht werden!" ("Sacrifices must be made!"). The director of the Otto Lilienthal Museum doubts that these were his last words. [25] Otto Lilienthal was buried at Lankwitz public cemetery in Berlin.


Lilienthal's research was well known to the Wright brothers, and they credited him as a major inspiration for their decision to pursue manned flight. However, they abandoned his aeronautical data after two seasons of gliding and began using their own wind tunnel data. [26]

Bronze plaque medal of Stolln, where Lilienthal had his fatal accident Aviation Pioneer Lilienthal Bronze Plaque..jpg
Bronze plaque medal of Stölln, where Lilienthal had his fatal accident
The Lilienthal monument, Berlin 2006 Lmom.jpg
The Lilienthal monument, Berlin 2006

Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the 19th century, Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important. ... It is true that attempts at gliding had been made hundreds of years before him, and that in the nineteenth century, Cayley, Spencer, Wenham, Mouillard, and many others were reported to have made feeble attempts to glide, but their failures were so complete that nothing of value resulted.

Berlin's busiest airport, Berlin Tegel "Otto Lilienthal" Airport, is named after him.

In September 1909, Orville Wright was in Germany making demonstration flights at Tempelhof aerodrome. He paid a call to Lilienthal's widow and, on behalf of himself and Wilbur, paid tribute to Lilienthal for his influence on aviation and on their own initial experiments in 1899.

In 1972, Lilienthal was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame. [28]

In 2013, American aviation magazine Flying ranked Lilienthal No. 19 on their list of the "51 Heroes of Aviation". [29]

Lilienthal was regularly joined by photographers at his request. Most of them are well known, like Ottomar Anschütz. Lilienthal was also constantly taking his own photographs of his flying machines after 1891. [33] There are at least 145 known photographs documenting his test flights, some of excellent quality. All of them are available online at the Otto Lilienthal Museum website. The only negatives, preserved in the Deutsches Museum in Munich, were destroyed during World War II. [23]

See also

Related Research Articles

Hang gliding An unpowered glider air sport

Hang gliding is an air sport or recreational activity in which a pilot flies a light, non-motorised foot-launched heavier-than-air aircraft called a hang glider. Most modern hang gliders are made of an aluminium alloy or composite frame covered with synthetic sailcloth to form a wing. Typically the pilot is in a harness suspended from the airframe, and controls the aircraft by shifting body weight in opposition to a control frame.

Wright brothers American aviation pioneers, inventors of the airplane

The Wright brothersOrville and Wilbur —were two American aviation pioneers generally credited with inventing, building, and flying the world's first successful motor-operated airplane. They made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903, 4 mi (6 km) south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1904–05, the brothers developed their flying machine to make longer-running and more aerodynamic flights with the Wright Flyer II, followed by the first truly practical fixed-wing aircraft, the Wright Flyer III. The Wright brothers were also the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.

Anklam Place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany

Anklam [German pronunciation: [ˈaŋklam](listen)], formerly known as Tanglim and Wendenburg, is a town in the Western Pomerania region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany. It is situated on the banks of the Peene river, just 8 km from its mouth in the Kleines Haff, the western part of the Stettin Lagoon. Anklam has a population of 14,603 (2005) and was the capital of the former Ostvorpommern district. Since September 2011, it has been part of the district of Vorpommern-Greifswald.

Percy Pilcher British aviator

Percy Sinclair Pilcher was a British inventor and pioneer aviator who was his country's foremost experimenter in unpowered flight at the end of the nineteenth century.

Wasserkuppe Rhön mountain in Germany

The Wasserkuppe  is a mountain within the German state of Hesse. It is a large plateau formation at an elevation of 950 metres (3,120 ft) and is the highest peak in the Rhön Mountains. Great advances in sailplane development took place on the mountain during the interwar period, driven by annual contests. Near the summit there is still an airfield used by gliding clubs and pilots of light aircraft.

Octave Chanute French-American aviation pioneer

Octave Chanute was an American civil engineer and aviation pioneer. He provided many budding enthusiasts, including the Wright brothers, with help and advice, and helped to publicize their flying experiments. At his death he was hailed as the father of aviation and the heavier-than-air flying machine.

This is a list of aviation-related events during the 19th century :

Jan Wnęk Polish aviation pioneer

Jan Wnęk was a Polish carver of religious statues who is claimed to have constructed and flown a glider (aircraft) in the 1860s, predating the flights of Otto Lilienthal. There is a speculative "reconstruction" of Wnek's glider in the Kraków Museum of Ethnography.

History of hang gliding

Hang gliding is an air sport employing a foot-launchable aircraft known as a hang glider. Typically, a modern hang glider is constructed of an aluminium alloy or composite-framed fabric wing. The pilot is ensconced in a harness suspended from the airframe, and exercises control by shifting body weight in opposition to a control frame.

Wright Glider Gliders built by the Wright brothers

The Wright brothers designed, built and flew a series of three manned gliders in 1900–1902 as they worked towards achieving powered flight. They also made preliminary tests with a kite in 1899. In 1911 Orville conducted tests with a much more sophisticated glider. Neither the kite nor any of the gliders were preserved, but replicas of all have been built.

Rhinow Place in Brandenburg, Germany

Rhinow is a town in the Havelland district (Landkreis), in Brandenburg, Germany. It is situated 16 km north of Rathenow, and 22 km south of Kyritz. Rhinow is the administrative seat (Verwaltungssitz) of the Rhinow district (Amt).

Akaflieg is an abbreviation for Akademische Fliegergruppe, groups of aerodynamical engineering students from individual German Technical Universities, pre and postwar, who design aircraft, often gliders.

Ferdinand Ferber French Army captain and aviator

Louis Ferdinand Ferber was a French Army officer who played an important role in the development of aviation during the early 1900s. Although his aircraft experiments were belatedly successful, his early recognition and publicizing of the work of the Wright Brothers was a major influence on the development of aviation in Europe.

Otto Lilienthal Museum museum

The Otto Lilienthal Museum in Anklam (Germany) is a museum dedicated to the "glider king" Otto Lilienthal, the flight pioneer, as well as a pioneer in technical, social and cultural projects.

Lilienthal Normalsegelapparat glider designed by Otto Lilienthal in the 1890s, first aeroplane to be serially produced

The Lilienthal Normalsegelapparat is a glider designed by Otto Lilienthal in Germany in the late 19th century. It is considered to be the first aeroplane to be serially produced, examples being made between 1893 and 1896.

Augustus Moore Herring Aircraft experimenter

Augustus Moore Herring was an American aviation pioneer, who sometimes is claimed by Michigan promoters to be the first true aviator of a motorized heavier-than-air aircraft.

Gollenberg Place in Brandenburg, Germany

Gollenberg is a municipality in the Havelland district, in Brandenburg, Germany consisting of Schönholz-Neuwerder, Stölln and Ohnewitz.

Akaflieg Darmstadt is one of approximately twenty flying groups attached to German universities. Akaflieg is an abbreviation for Akademische Fliegergruppe, an academic group of students and faculty from a German University.

Gustav Lilienthal German aviation and construction pioneer

Gustav Lilienthal was a German social reformer, a pioneer in building and construction technology, inventor of different Construction sets and involved in the pioneering work of his brother, Otto Lilienthal in aviation.

Lilienthal Large Biplane

Otto Lilienthal's Large Biplane glider was designed and built in 1895 as an advanced stage of the Lilienthal Normalsegelapparat - a monoplane glider invented by Otto Lilienthal. The Normalsegelapparat, patented in 1893, was the first production aircraft in history. Like its preceding model, the Large Biplane is a hang glider which is controlled through weight-shift by the pilot, as hang gliders are to this day.



  1. 1 2 "Otto Lilienthal." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004. Retrieved: 7 January 2012.
  2. "Killed In Trying To Fly", New York Herald, August 12, 1896, retrieved 11 June 2019
  3. DLR baut das erste Serien-Flugzeug der Welt nach 2017. Retrieved: 3 March 2017.
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-09-23. Retrieved 2015-02-23.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. Encyclopedia of Transportation. New York: Rand-McNally, 1977.
  6. "Archived copy" . Retrieved 2018-06-01.
  7. Anderson 2001, p. 156.
  8. Anderson 2001, p. 157.
  9. "Flying-Machine Otto Lilienthal. Patents. Retrieved: 16 November 2012.
  10. 1 2 "From Lilienthal to the Wrights." Otto Lilienthal Museum. Retrieved: 8 January 2012.
  11. 1 2 "Pioneers of Flight: Otto Lilienthal." Discovery Channel. Retrieved: 8 January 2012.
  12. Nitsch: Die Flugzeuge von Otto Lilienthal. Anklam 2016. ISBN   978-3-941681-88-0
  13. "Documentation of the only preserved Lilienthal engine" Otto Lilienthal Museum. Retrieved: 12 February 2018.
  14. Runge and Lukasch: Erfinderleben. Die Brüder Otto und Gustav Lilienthal. Berlin 2007. ISBN   978-3-8333-0467-5
  15. "Patent archives of the Museum." Otto Lilienthal Museum. Retrieved: 12 February 2018.
  16. Seifert and Waßermann: Otto Lilienthal. Leben und Werk. Eine Biographie. Hamburg 1992: pp. 62–65. ISBN   3-924562-02-4
  17. Chanute, O. "The Flying Man." Progress in Flying Machines. Retrieved: 16 November 2012.
  18. Seifert and Waßermann: Otto Lilienthal. Leben und Werk. Eine Biographie. Hamburg 1992: pp. 73–80. ISBN   3-924562-02-4
  19. "The man who jumped off hills: Otto Lilienthal's Fliegerberg." Archived 2012-11-05 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 8 January 2012.
  20. Shlomovitz, Netanel. "Before the Beginning." Israeli Air Force. Retrieved: 8 January 2012.
  21. "From Lichtenrade to Lichterfelde Süd" (in German) Archived 2012-01-21 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 8 January 2012.
  22. "Monument to Otto Lilienthal". Nature. 130 (3277): 270. 1932. Bibcode:1932Natur.130R.270.. doi: 10.1038/130270b0 .
  23. 1 2 "Lilienthal Photo archives." Otto Lilienthal Museum. Retrieved: 13 January 2012.
  24. Harsch, Viktor; Bardrum, Benny; Illig, Petra (October 2008). "Lilienthal's Fatal Glider Crash in 1896: Evidence Regarding the Cause of Death". Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine . 79 (101): 993–994. doi:10.3357/ASEM.2283.2008. PMID   18856192.
  25. Reichhardt, Tony (August 10, 2016). "The Last Words of Otto Lilienthal". Air & Space/Smithsonian . Retrieved June 27, 2018.
  26. Crouch 1989, pp. 226–228.
  27. Aero Club of America Bulletin, September 1912.
  28. Sprekelmeyer, Linda, editor. These We Honor: The International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Donning Co. Publishers, 2006. ISBN   978-1-57864-397-4.
  29. "51 Heroes of Aviation" Flying. Retrieved: March 24, 2019
  30. "R.E.M. - Losing My Religion (Official Music Video)" (go to 3:06 mark) YouTube. Retrieved: 10 October 2017.
  31. "The Airship Flying Cloud, R-505." Retrieved: 16 November 2012.
  32. Mey, Reinhard, lyrics: 'Lilienthals Traum' Reinhard Mey. Retrieved: 21 December 2016.
  33. Lukasch, Bernd. "Lilienthal and Photography." Otto Lilienthal Museum. Retrieved: 13 January 2012.