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The First Textbook of Mechanical Flight


In 1889 German pioneer of human aviation Otto Lilienthal, known as the Glider King, published Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst. Lilienthal's study of the method and aerodynamics of bird flight was the first textbook of mechanical flight. Lilienthal applied the the results of his bird-flight studies to the problem of human flight, constructing one-man gliders based on the shape of a bird's wing. The experiments he conducted with these gliders from 1891 until his tragic death in 1896 demonstrated the practical application of his theories of flight and inspired others to build upon his initial investigations.

While gliding on 9 August 1896 Lilienthal fell from a height of 17 m (56 ft), breaking his spine. He died the next day, saying, "Kleine Opfer müssen gebracht werden!" ("Small sacrifices must be made!") and was buried at Lankwitz public cemetery in Berlin.

"Lilienthal's book [became] one of the chief bibles for the aeronautical world after he demonstrated that his theories could be put into practice. . . . It was the basis on which the Wrights first started building their aerodynamic work, and they were always high in praise of its pioneering value, even when they were led to modify Lilienthal's findings" (Gibbs-Smith, The Invention of the Aeroplane [1799-1909] 23, and 23-25).

Lilienthal's work was translated into English as Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation and published in London in 1911.

Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) No. 1353.

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