Though increasingly daring—and dangerous—experiments through the mid-1800s helped to refine gliders, by the 1890s they remained heavy and primitive contraptions. But it was the important advances by these glider pioneers that gave Wilbur and Orville Wright a leg up on their first sustained, powered flight.
One of the most dedicated of the glider pioneers was a Prussian-born inventor named Otto Lilienthal. Lilienthal blazed some of the design trails that the Wrights would later follow in designing the earliest airplanes. In fact, the Wrights corresponded with Lilienthal, whose designs influenced the makeup of their first successful airplane.
But Lilienthal was not to live to see the fruits of his work. After returning to Berlin from Egypt, where he built a miniature pyramid to use as a launch pad for his glides, Lilienthal made the last of his 2,000-odd glider flights. Although Lilienthal was a superbly skilled flyer, something went wrong that day in August 1896. The glider pitched up, then fluttered to the ground. Lilienthal suffered a broken spine and was rushed to a hospital. He survived for one more day, enough time to weigh the risks he had taken against the advances he was able to make toward controlled human flight. In the end he approved of the balance he had struck, and with his dying breath was heard to say, “Sacrifices must be made…”
Lilienthal was not alone in his fondness for gliders and his conviction that gliders could help speed the development of powered flight. In America, a French-born engineer named Octave Chanute was inspired by Lilienthal’s life and courageous death. In 1896, at the age of 64, Chanute began experimenting with gliders and wrote books about his findings. This research was to help a pair of brothers from Ohio to launch a revolution that would change the lives of every person on earth.