Otto Lilienthal and his brother Gustav developed an interest in flying. When Lilienthal was a lad, he and Gustav watched birds in flight to understand the mechanisms of flying. Luckily for him, his elementary education included bird studies, which helped to harness his fascination with flying. Over the years, Lilienthal and Gustav built many gliders, which he used to conduct over two thousand glider flights before his glider was upset by a sudden gust of wind and he crashed to his death in 1896. Lilienthal’s engineering abilities and his in interest aerospace studies placed him at the forefront of aeronautics.
Name: Otto Lilienthal
Birth Date: May 1848 – August 10, 1896
Job Functions: Inventor, Aeronaut
Fields: Aeronautics and Engineering
Known For: Built and flew gliders, made technical improvements to steam boilers, designed children’s building blocks.
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Otto Lilienthal was the King of Gliders. A mechanical engineer by profession, Lilienthal was the first in history to design and successfully fly gliders. Though Lilienthal studied engineering, aerospace studies remained his hobby and passion. In 1867, while he was still studying engineering, Lilienthal started to experiment with aerodynamics and human flight.
For over two decades, Lilienthal performed a long series of carefully organized aerodynamic experiments, from which he clearly demonstrated the aerodynamic superiority of arched wings over flat-surfaced types, and brought gliding flight into a regular practice. He meticulously carried out his experiments and published his findings in 1890 in a book entitled Birdflight As The Basis Of Aviation. This body of work influenced aeronautical design for the next fifteen years, and was one of the resources used by Orville and Wilbur Wright.
In 1873, he and his brother joined the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain since they didn’t have a similar association in Germany. Lilienthal started the lecture circuit there, talking to fellow members about his observations and theories about bird flight as a basis for aviation. Over the years he gave lectures to various groups. His later lectures, in 1888, 1889 and 1890, were titled “The Energy Involved in Bird Flight,” (a series of three lectures) and “The Flight of Birds and Humans through the Warmth of the Sun.”
In 1890, for the first time, Lilienthal started his experiment with human passengers in his flying machine. In 1891, he and Gustav successfully built and tested a glider. Lilienthal made adjustments to his design and shortened the wing span. The new design flew approximately 80 feet. Lilienthal continually made adjustments to his hang glider and achieved greater distances of sustained flight. In 1893, he built a hill to use as a launch pad for his test flights, and achieved flights of over 150 feet, and that same year he built a motorized glider with flapping wings.
Because he had studied various birds in flight for such a long time, Lilienthal wanted to replicate the motions of seagulls because of their broad wing strokes and their ability to sail on the sea. And he was also fascinated with storks because he felt they were the perfect model for human flight. Lilienthal had 18 models for his glider designs (15 monoplanes and three biplanes), but it appears that “Model 11” was the most reproduced. One of Lilienthal’s Model 11 is on display at the National Space and Air Museum at the Smithsonian Institute.
As Lilienthal designed and tested his manned gliders, and made sure that he kept precise records of all his activities and experiments, including many photo graphs. He wanted to gain understanding in the forces and motions involved in flight, and he also wanted to recreate the experiments using the same flight machine. He was so serious about experimentation that Lilienthal flew more than 2,000 flights and achieved a maximum distance of 1,150 feet.
He wrote articles on his experience in flying and the impediments to success in the journal Prometheus. In his short life of 48 years, Otto Lilienthal contributed significantly to piloted flight and was an inspiration to The Wright Brothers.
Otto Lilienthal’s Steps to Success
- Ignored the stigma attached to flying machine inventors.
- Observed birds in flight.
- He developed his passion for flying.
- Studied aerodynamics and design concepts.
- Conducted repeatable experiments in flying.
- Flew over 2,000 flights and achieved a maximum distance of 1,150 feet.
- Accumulated 20 patents for his machine designs including four for aviation devices.
Why Otto Lilienthal’s Contribution Matters
- Otto Lilienthal’s work in aeronautics influenced aeronautical design for the next 15 years.
In 1881, Lilienthal started a boiler factory which was based on his own designs. He manufactured pulleys, sirens, other apparatuses in addition to boilers. He made technical improvements in steam boilers, and designed building blocks for his four children. At his factory, he had a profit-sharing program for his employees.
Lessons from Otto Lilienthal
- Nature is often the problem solver to how things work. (Visit the website Ask Nature)
- Keep precise records of your work so you can share with others.
- Live your passion.
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Book links are affiliate links.
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Science and Its Times
Macmillan Encyclopedia of Energy