Otto Lilienthal – the glider king

Learn more about the first human flight and the man behind it.

By Otto-Lilienthal-Museum


Vacuum airship project of an Italian Jesuit priest Francesco Lana de Terzi (1670) by Francesco Lana de Terzi and Francesco Lana de TerziOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

A dream of flight

To fly was always more than just a technical challenge. The idea of conquering the skies is a dream that has fascinated would-be pilots since around 2300 BC. Now, facts, data and images let us retell the short story of human flight - the culmination of a long prehistory of fantastic projects, astonishing ideas and adventurous attempts.

Airship project (1709) by Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão and Bartolomeu Lourenço de GusmãoOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

In 1709, the Portuguese priest and naturalist Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão presented a petition to King of Portugal, seeking royal support for his invention of an airship.

Airmail ship "Minerva" (1804) by Robertson, Robertson, and model: Serowski, Harald/Otto-Lilienthal-MuseumOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

Fantastic Airship "Minerva"

A popular early satire on the onset of "balloon mania" which began with the first balloon trips in 1783.

steam driven airship (1852-09-24) by Baptiste Henri Jacques Giffard and Baptiste Henri Jacques GiffardOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

The world's first passenger airship, powered with a steam engine of the French engineer Henry Giffard reached a speed of about 10 km/h (1:50 scale model).

airship with an electric engine (1883-10-08) by Albert und Gaston Tissandier, Tissandier, Gaston & Albert, and model: Grils/Otto-Lilienthal-MuseumOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

This model shows the first airship with an electric engine (1:50 scale model).

Gasoline driven airship (1896) by Friedrich Hermann Wölfert and Wölfert, Friedrich HerrmannOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

First successful airship driven by a gasoline engine. (Model 1:50)

LIFE Photo Collection

When humans learned to fly

”That day in 1891 when Lilienthal paced the first 15 metres of air, I take as the moment when mankind learned to fly.” A historic quote by French flight pioneer Ferdinand Ferber (1862-1909).

Ottomar Anschütz famos photographs of storks, Anschütz, Ottomar, 1884, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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Since 1882, Ottoman Anschütz was busy outsmarting the "moment". His "focal plane shutter" was, in addition to sensitive photographic material, the key to producing so-called "momentary photographs". They were the prerequisite for imaging moving objects. A series of flying storks was one of the first instant photographs in 1884. Anschütz became the most important photographer of the flying Otto Lilienthal.

"first film" of Otto Lilienthal's flights (2016) by Johannes Hogebrink and Hogebrink, JohannesOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

Composed from photographs, this stop-motion animation shows the first human flight by Otto Lilienthal.

Otto Lilienthal: "Derwitz glider" (1891) by Otto LilienthalOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

The beginning of human flight

Das erste erfolgreiche "Flugzeug" der Geschichte (Replik)

Otto Lilienthal in flight with his small biplane, Richard Neuhauss, Neuhauss, Richard, 1895-10-07, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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Small biplane

"Normal soraing apparatus" - first aeroplane built in series (1894/1896) by Otto LilienthalOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

This is the first flying vehicle in a serial production. We know that at least nine people bought the original glider. Four of these are preserved in museums in London, Moscow, Munich and Washington.

cockpit of Otto Lilienthal's "Normal Soaring Apparatus", Otto Lilienthal, 1894/1896, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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The Cockpit

Otto Lilienthal's "large biplane" (1895) by Otto LilienthalOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

The problem of steering
Lilienthal's aeroplane "small biplane", Otto Lilienthal, 1895, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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Lilienthal described his vision for steering control, stating: "The biplane design has the same lifting capacity of a single wing with twice the span, but the shorter span is more responsive to changes in the center of gravity." The results were convincing. The original lower wing is preserved in Vienna.

Otto Lilienthal's small wing flapping apparatus, Otto Lilienthal, replica: Nitsch, Stephan; Legat, Ingolf, 1893/1896, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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Lilienthal also attempted to add a wing-flapping mechanism to his gliders.

The book "birdflight as the basis of aviation" - the foundation of (1889) by Otto LilienthalOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

Inspired by bird flight

Lilienthal’s successful gliding flights from 1891 earned him international recognition. His tests and experimentation from 1873 onwards formed the fundamental groundwork for today’s aviation. In his book ”Bird Flight As The Basis Of Aviation” published in 1889, he presented the physical laws of the wing that are still valid today.

Watercolor "Circling Storks", Otto Lilienthal, 1889, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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The bird flight was the main inspiration for Lilienthal's invention.

Plate VIII from Lilienthal's book "Birdflight as a Basis of Aviation", Lilienthal, Otto, 1889, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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Decoded - the mystery of the wing

wing flapping experiment, Otto Lilienthal, 1889, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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Lilienthal’s first well-documented experiment: Are flapping wings the key to human flight?

Whirling arm device (1989) by Otto LilienthalOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

Whirling arm device

Polar diagram - quintessence of Lilienthal's measurements (1889) by Otto LilienthalOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

Lilienthal published a paper about the properties of artificial wings featuring work that is still valid today: the so called "polar diagram".

Letterhead of the engineering works "Otto Lilienthal" (after 1910) by Ernst WolffOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

Lilienthal's legacy

Lilienthal went down in history as the ”first flying man”. But this reveals only a part of his life: he was also a successful manufacturer of small steam engines and steam boilers. As a creative engineer he held numerous mechanical engineering patents and he was a progressive entrepreneur with a focus on how engineering could help improve society. What’s more, almost all construction toys to this day are based on inventions of the Lilienthal brothers.

stone building blocks - drawings for a construction toy (1879) by Lilienthal, Gustav and Lilienthal, GustavOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

The story of toy blocks

Another famous invention

Submittal for a stone building set, Lilienthal, Gustav, 1885, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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first sold stone building blocks, Lilienthal, Gustav; Georgens, Jan Daniel, 1879, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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the only kept steam engine produces in the Lilienthal engeneering works (1889) by Lilienthal, OttoOtto-Lilienthal-Museum

The flight pioneer's steam engine

For the last century or so, historians engaged in research with the life and accomplishments of Lilienthal had come to the conclusion that, apart from the few preserved gliders, probably no original product of the Lilienthal machine works has been preserved. That's why it was a big surprise when the museum got to know a few years ago that a Lilienthal steam engine existed in Australia.

Otto Lilienthal as an actor in a Berlin theater, . B. Kliemeck,, 1893, From the collection of: Otto-Lilienthal-Museum
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Otto Lilienthal as an actor in the Berlin "Ostendtheater" which he transformed into a "Volksbühne" (community theatre) as a co-owner. He also became the author of a play with strong autobiographical features for the theater.

Lilienthal medal (1914 - 1935)Otto-Lilienthal-Museum

Award of the "Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft für Luftfahrt" (Scientific Association of Aviation)
front: "OTTO LILIENTHAL MDCCCXLVIII-XCVI NON OMNIS MORIAR" (1848-96, I will not die), verso:: "für hervorragende Verdienste" (distinguished merits)

Before we finish, we invite you to take a look around the displays of the Otto-Lilienthal-Museum for yourself.

Credits: Story

Ellbogenstraße 1
D-17389 Anklam

Website Otto-Lilienthal-Museum

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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