Otto Lilienthal’s In-Flight Movie From the 1890s

With a little help from a 21st-century filmmaker, the visionary aviation pioneer takes to the air.

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“Men can learn to fly as well as birds if they will only exercise a little patience,” said visionary glider designer Otto Lilienthal in 1894. He believed that the first principle of flying was the ability to glide like a bird; only after successfully mastering that skill would one be able to fly with movable wings.

Lilienthal made almost 2,000 flights in his various gliders. “The newspaper and magazine photographs of Otto Lilienthal gliding down hillsides near Berlin stirred excitement around the world,” write David Romanowski and Melissa Keiser in their book Legacy of Flight: Images from the Archives of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “His single-wing gliders, which looked and operated much like modern hang gliders, performed best. But control remained precarious, as a strong gust of wind on August 9, 1896, tragically proved. Lilienthal’s glider nosed up, stalled, and plummeted 50 feet to the ground. The fall broke his spine, and he died the next day.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t any film of Otto Lilienthal in flight—until now. Artist and filmmaker Johannes Hogebrink (working with the Otto Lilienthal Museum in Germany) has gathered 145 still images of Lilienthal and put them in sequence; the result, above, lets us see for the very first time Lilienthal’s amazing accomplishment.     

We thank Contributing Editor Brian Nicklas for leading us to this film.

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