Otto Lilienthal: The Greatest of the Precursors

Otto Lilienthal aspired to build flying machines at an early age. Born near Ankhlam, Germany in 1848, he along with his brother studied bird flight. At age fourteen, they built a pair of flapping wings and attempted to fly by attaching them to their hands and running downhill by flapping them. By the time of his death in a glider accident in 1896, he was the world’s premier Aeronautical Engineer, having developed and published advanced conceptual understanding of flight data and of flight. The 18th century saw great strides in lighter than air flying and the first successful flight of the Montgolfier brothers. At the close of the eighteenth century, there was technical progress in heavier than air flight. While Sir George Cayley conceived the modern airplane in its basic form as machine with fixed wings, a fuselage and a tail, with separate systems to provide lift, propulsion and control, Otto Lilienthal provided the next quantum leap. Together their combined work provided the basis for the success if the next generation of pioneers.

As teenagers, Otto and his brother Gustav, built fixed wing gliders and tested them at a nearby military field. One of his serious investigations was a full sized Ornithopter, which was suspended by rope and pulleys, counterbalanced by a 40kg weight. The degree to which the pull on the counterweight reduced was measured, when the operator pumped the flapping wings with his legs. Lilienthal attended the Royal Trade Academy where he studied Mechanical Engineering. This prepared him for his future research in aeronautics and provided credibility for his work. He served one year in the Franco-Prussian war and upon return, began his experiments on air pressure with a Whirly arm device.

He measured aerodynamic forces of lift and drag and collected data and is known to have published normal and axial coefficients of aerodynamic force in his air pressure data that was used by future experimenters including the Wright Brothers. After a brief hiatus between 1881 and 1888, Lilienthal returned to the second phase of his career, this time focusing on glider design. He is known to have designed 16 different gliders based on his aerodynamic calculations and made as many as 2000 short flights. Lilienthal is credited with being the first pilot to recognize, attempt and achieve soaring flight. Lilienthal practiced gliding flight from a hill in his many designs. He published his experiments, encouraging and urging his readers to be unafraid to try gliding and to improve on his designs. Lilienthal flew with his arms inserted into the sleeve of the glider, elbows flexed and supporting his upper body, while his lower body hung below.

Otto Lilienthal flying from a hill

On the fatal day in August 1896, while trying to steer in a heat eddy, he encountered trouble and fell nose first to the ground unable to re-establish flight. Although he was pulled alive from the wreckage, he suffered concussions and is assumed to have perished from the growing intracranial hematoma. Otto Lilienthal knew that to build a successful aircraft, it was essential to learn to fly. He became the first to fly a glider and the first fatality of flight in 1896. He is also known for his extensive tests of airfoils. He is also known for his contribution to Kutta’s first paper on airfoil theory. He inspired other followers such as Percy Pilcer, Octave Chanute, Ferdinand Ferber and the Wrights. In Germany, where it almost began, Otto Lilienthal is considered one of the strongest pioneers of the German aerospace. He was the immediate predecessor of the Wrights and is undoubtedly one of the greatest precursors for his daring and tenacious pursuit of flying.

See Also:

To Fly Like a Bird

Lilienthal Glider

The Ancients: Jules Verne

Jules Verne was born in 1828 in Nantes, France. Although he went to law school, he was attracted to literature and embarked on a fictional career publishing many science fiction novels. He is known as the father of science fiction. Some of his famous novels include Five Weeks in a Balloon, Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon, Around the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Discovery of the Earth.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Verne was not a scientist, but his novels explored scientific theories that were more plausible and grounded in reality. His publisher, Pierre Jules Hetzel, mandated that he teach science through fiction. His scientific explorations were derived from extensive reading of contemporary publications, discussions with experts among his friends and relatives and his own travels; Verne was an amateur sailor and traveled extensively with his wife. His fictional works include many dream machines, many of them futuristic that leave his readers in awe, transporting them to into extraordinary worlds.

In Around the World in Eighty Days, the protagonist Phileas Fogg and his companions use different modes of transportation available in the 1880s to travel around the world in 80 days. The novel explores the diversity of the Earth’s surface, both physical and cultural and continues to be used as an educational tool. In an analysis conducted it was found that students who “discuss tenets of National Geographical Standards in the context of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days” increased their knowledge as well as their interest in the discipline. In today’s terms 80 days to circumnavigate the Earth is a long time, and this feat can be accomplished in a matter of days using multimodal transportation or in hours such as the record set by Air France Concorde in 1992 or numerous other examples of circumnavigating the Earth using aircraft, balloons, sailplanes, Seacraft, spacecraft, and other transportation modes.

In his novel, From the Earth to the Moon, Verne’s theories of a moon trip including a potential launch site in Southern Florida, eerily match with uncanny precision NASA’s Apollo program almost a hundred years later. The size, shape, weight, material, crew size and the return method all consistent in their accuracy, very evident, in the comparison of an artist rendering of Verne’s lunar craft with the Apollo command and service module.

Spurred by President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation in 1961 that the US would send a man to the moon before the end of the decade, the Apollo program pursued several ambitious goals of developing the capability to transport humans to space, land on the moon, work in the lunar environment, and safely return to the earth. At the time of this announcement, the first American, Alan Sheppard had spent 15 minutes in space and returned safely. On July 21, 1969, NASA achieved this goal when Apollo 11 astronauts step foot on the moon becoming the first and only humans to ever step foot on the moon.

Not only this particular vehicle, National Geographic captures eight Jules Verne inventions that came true, including electrical submarines, newscasts, Solar Sails that resemble an artist rendition of NASA’s NanoSail-D, lunar modules, skywriting, videoconferencing, taser, and spaceship splash down in the ocean similar to the Mercury capsule. Verne did not anticipate that governments would drive moon race, but would be sponsored by private enterprises. However, this too can change with the commercialization of space and private sector companies becoming active participants in the space race.


Jules Verne died in 1905, almost at the advent of the golden age of powered flight and almost fifty years prior to the first spaceflight. He authored more than 60 books and his scientific fiction continues to spark the imagination of his readers be they students, writers, scientists or inventors for more than a century.

See Also:

Jules Verne Biography