The Wheels and Wings of Progress

Richard Overy examines how technological advances in the air and on the road gave society a jump-start at the end of the nineteenth century.

On August 9th, 1896, the German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, crashed to his death in a small experimental glider. He and his brother Gustav had spent years trying to adapt the lessons of bird flight so that man could fly. On this particular day Otto had gone to the experimental field, a group of sandhills at Stollen near Magdeburg, to try one more flight before packing all the apparatus up. A gust of wind upturned the glider. Otto had failed to fit the shock absorber that would have saved his life.

A few years before his death Otto published the book that made him famous, Birdflight as the Basis for Aviation (1891). His was a lifelong obsession, first expressed as a young boy in the 1860s, with the idea that one day man would be able to fly. 'He longs to soar upward and to glide, free as the bird, over smiling fields, leafy woods and mirror-like lakes...' wrote Otto in 1891. His study of birdflight convinced him that it was only a matter of time before science produced the artificial equivalent necessary to 'free our foot from mother earth'. A decade later science obliged. In 1905 the first true flights using a small petrol-driven engine were made by the Wright brothers in the United States; the first flight without any kind of launching apparatus was made in France three years later. Lilienthal's contribution to aerodynamic theory played a vital part in the early development of powered flight.

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