Otto and the Wright Brothers - November 30, 2012

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Otto and the Wright Brothers – November 30, 2012

“Robert Novell’s Third Dimension Blog”

Good Morning—I hope the week was not too taxing on your soul and your spirit is ready for the challenge of the new day and the weekend. Today I am going to introduce you to the man who gave the Wright Brothers the necessary knowledge, and inspiration, to accomplish their goal of powered flight. Wilbur Wright described this man as having been the most important influence on flying with his work on aerodynamics, and the theory of flight, prior to current day accomplishments by others, and further stated the following in a tribute to this aviation pioneer:

As a missionary he was wonderful. He presented the cause of human flight to his readers so earnestly, so attractively, and so convincingly that it was difficult for anyone to resist the temptation to make an attempt at it himself, … he was without question the greatest of the precursors, and the world owes to him a great debt.

"Wilbur Wright"

The man Wilbur was paying tribute to was Otto Lilienthal, a German Engineer/Aviator, whose life, and accomplishments, will be our topic today.


"Otto Lilienthal"

Otto Lilienthal was born in Anklam, Prussia on May 23, 1848. Together with his brother, Gustav, Lilienthal developed an interest in flying, and at any early age the two boys began to observe the movements of birds to try to understand the mechanisms of flight. Otto became a professional design engineer, but aerospace studies remained a hobby and a passion. He spent a year in an on-the-job training program at the Berlin Trade School, then three years at the Royal Technical Academy in Berlin. While still an engineering student in 1867, Lilienthal began to experiment with aerodynamics and human flight.

Lilienthal subscribed to glider-based theories of flight, so he focused his attention on the shape of the wings in developing his designs for flying machines. His early experiments in 1874 with the forces of air involved kites and other apparatuses of his own design. In the period from 1891 to 1896, Lilienthal succeeded with over 2,000 gliding flights with many different glider designs, including flapping wing models. His total of five hours flying time was probably the most important in aviation history.

In 1896, Lilienthal lectured at the Trade Exhibition in Berlin on June 16. This was his last known lecture. On August 10, 1896 he died in a Berlin hospital from injuries following a crash from an altitude of 50 feet (15.2 meters) on the previous day. The accident occurred when a thermal blew him off balance. His glider stalled and his attempted recovery effort was unsuccessful. The resulting impact from the fall caused a fracture to his spine.

At the time of his death, Lilienthal had begun to explore the issues of wing stroke. His belief that learning to glide was the natural forerunner to learning to fly was embodied in the opening paragraph of his article "Our Teachers in Sailing Flight," published in Prometheus. He wrote, "All perplexities concerning light motors, and speculations on the amount of power required for flying, are relegated to the background by the fact that the power of the wind alone is sufficient to affect any kind of independent flight."

Lilienthal's notion "from jump to flight" is widely regarded as the inspiration for aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. In an article in Century in September 1908, the Wright Brothers wrote: "It was not until the news of the sad death of Lilienthal reached America in the summer of 1896 that we gave more than passing attention to the subject of flying. We then studied several pamphlets published by the Smithsonian Institute, especially articles by Lilienthal. The Wrights also revealed that the wing surface shape of their 1901 machine was modeled after a Lilienthal design.

Throughout his experiments and his writings, Lilienthal upheld that flight was not to be realized suddenly by the invention of one single machine. He fostered the notion that a long process of study, and a thorough examination of the axioms of aerodynamics, was imperative to the successful invention of a progressive series of viable flying machines with each machine proving more capable than its predecessor.

Two of Lilienthal's original flying machines survived into the twenty-first century. One of his “No – 11" gliders is on exhibit at the National Space and Air Museum at the Smithsonian Institute. Another of his planes, a "little biplane," also survived. Lilienthal's first flying apparatus, however, was lost; only replicas remain. In the 1980s the Otto Lilienthal Museum, in his hometown of Anklam, opened in honor of the 100th anniversary of his first flights.

The brief description I have provided of the life of Otto Lilienthal is a blending of facts from numerous sources but that which is important is that this man is also responsible for the Wright’s success in the same way Charlie Taylor was responsible; however, there is one more person in the equation of success for the Wrights. His name is Octave Chanute.

After the news of Lilienthal’s death reached the US the Wright Brothers contacted the American authority of knowledge on worldwide flight research. This authority was Octave Chanute who was the publisher of the section “Aeronautics” in the “American Engineer and Railroad Journal.” Chanute had exchanged correspondence with Lilienthal for several years, and was very familiar with all of his research. In Chanute’s book, Progress in Flying Machines, Lilienthal’s latest article was included as an appendix.

Chanute also translated many parts of Lilienthal’s books on aerodynamics and as a result he became the scientific link between Lilienthal and early aviation development in the United States which, of course, included the Wright Brothers.  Now, you know the rest of the story……………………

Have a good weekend, enjoy the video below which will give you an overview of Otto Lilienthal’s life, and don’t forget to stop back by next Friday when we will talk about a man who may have beaten the Wright Brothers in the quest to conquer motorized flight.


Robert Novell

November 30, 2012