Otto Lilienthal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An aviation pioneer and creative genius who was the first man to build and fly a successful heavier-than-air flying machine.

Otto Lilienthal’s passion to fly blossomed early in his life. Although there was no formal science of aviation during Lilienthal’s youth, ther e is evidence that Lilienthal studied birds in grammar school. At the age of twenty-five, Lilienthal joined the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, where he gave his first lecture about the theory of avian flight. He then began systematic experiments and tests with models and kites on the force of air on human-made wings. No mere tinkerer, he was an accomplished engineer, with his own business engineering boilers and steam engines. He obtained a patent for a mining machine, the first of his twenty patents, four of which were aviation patents.

Lilienthal’s ongoing experiments and studies culminated, in 1891, with his building his first heavier-than-air flying machine, which flew for a distance of 80 feet. This machine would be described today as a hang glider. Over the next five years, he built a total of eighteen flying machines and made more than two thousand sustained and replicable flights.

In 1892, Lilienthal built a new glider with improved flight characteristics. The following year, he built a flight station near his home, where he made a number of flights with distances of up to 800 feet. Lilienthal not only designed, engineered, and built a machine that could fly, but he also taught himself to fly it.

Although Lilienthal’s flying machines were difficult to control and to turn, they did accomplish sustained flight. His outstanding contribution to the science of flight was the cambered, or curved surface, wing. This wing form, with a rounded top surface and a concave or flat underside, produces the lift needed to make an airplane fly and is still used today on most airplanes.

By 1895, Lilienthal’s flight accomplishments were widely reported, and Lilienthal was visited by flight enthusiasts from many different countries. He corresponded with and shared his ideas with other aviation pioneers, such as Octave Chanute and Orville and Wilbur Wright. He generously published and shared the results of his aviation theories and experiments.

On August 9, 1896, at the age of forty-eight, Lilienthal crashed while flying one of his machines and died the next day. He is famous for the following quotation, “To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly is everything.” Lilienthal was a creative genius whose ingenuity, observations, engineering, and daring laid the cornerstone for the development of aviation.

  • Combs, H., and M. Caidin. Kill Devil Hill. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. A very readable study of the Wright brothers that also explains the principles behind aviation.
  • Lilienthal, Otto. Birdflight as the Basis for Aviation: A Contribution Towards a System of Aviation. Translated by A. W. Isenthal. Hummelstown, Pa.: Markowski, 2001. An unabridged facsimile reprint of Lilienthal’s 1889 work, including original illustrations.
  • National Air and Space Museum. Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute: Pioneers of Gliding. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1980. A publication by the Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum on the early years of flight research.


Octave Chanute

Heavier-than-air craft

History of human flight

Wing designs

Wright brothers

Otto Lilienthal flies in his glider from a hill near Berlin in 1896, the same year in which he died in a glider crash.

(Hulton Archive)
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