Saturday, January 26, 2013


I’ll bet you said the Wright brothers, but that’s not true. Far back in time, man has longed to soar like  bird. Leonardo da Vinci left drawings of a type of flying machine. But who actually succeeded in building a machine that would carry a man into the air? 

According to many historians, a German immigrant living in Texas made the first recorded flight in 1865. Yep, Texas did it again. Of course, since I’m a Texan, I am proud of the state and [most of] its citizens and their accomplishments. But no matter where you live, Jacob Brodbeck deserves your admiration.

Jacob Friedrich Brodbeck

Jacob Friedrich Brodbeck was born in the duchy of Württemberg on October 13, 1821. He attended a seminary in Esslingen and taught school for six years in Württemberg before sailing for Texas with his brother George on August 25, 1846. Brodbeck had always had an interest in mechanics and inventing. While still in Germany, he had attempted to build a self-winding clock. This fact is important to his later invention.  

He reached Fredericksburg in March 1847, became the second teacher at the Vereins Kirche, and taught at Grape Creek (later renamed Luckenbach) school and other Gillespie County schools. He became a United States citizen in 1852, and in 1858 he married Maria Christine Sophie Behrens, a former student at Grape Creek and they eventually had twelve children. Brodbeck served as Gillespie county surveyor and district school supervisor in 1862 and was a county commissioner from 1876 to 1878. 

Jacob Brodbeck is best remembered, however, for his attempts at powered flight almost forty years before the famous success of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Brodbeck had always had an interest in mechanics and inventing. In 1869 he designed an ice-making machine, but that is contemporary with others working on and solving the same problem across the United States. His wife had a powered washing machine in the 1860s, using a power takeoff from the windmill. Brodbeck designed the power takeoff. I don't know about you, but in my opinion designing a washing machine is every bit as remarkable as an airplane and a lot handier for most people. He also built rubber- band powered flying toys for children.

Add a power takeoff
for a washing machine.
His most cherished project, however, was his flying machine, which he worked on for twenty years. In 1863 he built a small model with a rudder, wings, and a propeller powered by coiled springs. That year he also moved to San Antonio, where he became a school inspector. Encouraged by the success of his model at various local fairs, Brodbeck raised funds to build a full-sized version of his craft that would be capable of carrying a man. He persuaded a number of local men, including Dr. Ferdinand Herff of San Antonio, H. Guenther of New Braunfels and A. W. Engel of Cranes Mill, to buy shares in his project.

According to author C. F. Eckhart, Brodbeck had a large, powerful clockwork motor and a series of gears.(Remember Brodbeck had tried to invent a self-winding clock?) According to descriptions, the wings were remarkably similar to modern aircraft wings. His motor didn’t develop enough power for the machine to take off on its own. 

Brodbeck's solution was to build a ski-jump like ramp on the side of a hill near Fredericksburg/Luckenbach. The machine was taken to the top of the ramp. As it gained speed sliding down the ramp, Brodbeck engaged the motor. The machine would nose up coming off the ramp. Sounds a bit like an amusement park ride, doesn't it?

Mr. Eckhart explained that, although apparently Brodbeck’s design worked perfectly on paper, in the real world his motors didn’t work at all. Brodbeck designed two interdependent clockwork motors, one to rewind the other. When Motor A became unwound, Motor B would be engaged to rewind it. As soon as Motor A was rewound by Motor B, the pilot would manually rewind Motor B to be ready to engage it when Motor A again became unwound. 

While that works in theory, Mr. Eckhart explained that what happens in practice is different. As soon as spring tension in Motor A is equal to spring tension in Motor B, everything stops. Motor B can never rewind Motor A past the point of equal spring tension, and Motor A can’t function until it can release the tension on its spring, which is prevented by the tension of Motor B’s spring. (You can read Mr. Eckhart's essay on Brodbeck at the url given in sources below.)

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. One says that Brodbeck made his first flight in a field about three miles east of Luckenbach on September 20, 1865. His airship featured an enclosed space for the pilot, a water propeller in case of accidental landings on water, a compass, and a barometer. Brodbeck had predicted speeds between 30 and 100 miles per hour. However, he was said to have risen twelve feet in the air and traveled about 100 feet before the machine crashed.

Father of U.S. Aviation, Jacob Brodbeck

Another account, however, says that the initial flight took place in San Pedro Park, San Antonio, where a bust of Brodbeck was later placed. (San Pedro Park is the second oldest park in the United States and features a spring-fed swimming pool.) Yet another account reports that the flight took place in 1868, not 1865. There were witnesses, but no one took a photo and there was no or very limited press coverage. 

Did Brodbeck's flying machine crash into
either a large tree, chicken coop, or both?

Some accounts say he crashed into a chicken coop, another that he hit a large live oak. All the accounts agree that Brodbeck's airship was destroyed by its abrupt landing, although Brodbeck escaped serious injury. To his body, that is. I'm sure his crash crushed his spirit and shattered his dreams. In fact, he was so disheartened by his failed flight that he burned his flying machine. 

There conflicting reports as to what happened next. Some historians say that Brodbeck never displayed any interest in his flying machine again. Mr. Eckhart believes Brodbeck was at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1900, carrying copies of all his drawings and specs, trying to get someone to finance building of another machine. While he was there, someone stole his papers. The crime was never solved.

For those interested in early aviation and/or Texas, Rev. Burrell Cannon of Pittsburg, Texas flew his Ezekiel airship a year before the Wright brothers. Cannon got his idea for the airship from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, which described a flying machine: "The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the color of beryl and...their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel."

Almost forty years after Jacob Brodbeck’s failed 1865 flight and a year after Rev. Cannon's flight, the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903. They received all the acclaim, and it is they whose names appear in most history books. 

Ahh, but a couple of Texans flew first!

Thanks for stopping by!



  1. Awesome info. I had no idea, having had Orville and Wilbur and Kittyhawk drilled into my head since I was a kid. Good job finding some cool obscure facts.

  2. Fascinating--I have never heard about this man. But he sounds like he was a colorful character with either much courage, a little daredevilish, or a little slow!
    Thanks for this--I now have somethiing else to store away about Texas.

  3. How interesting. Sometimes I wonder how they ever came up with the right workings to get a plan in the air and to fly. Wouldn't they be impressed if they saw what we have nowadays.

  4. What a great post, Caroline! I had never heard of him. How sad that he burned his flying machine, but I understand...he just must have been inconsolable. And then to have his drawings stolen????? AWFUL!

  5. Thanks for your comments. My husband tells me Brodbeck's claim is controversial in aviation history, but I like thinking that a Texan was the first person to build a flying machine.

  6. Fascinating post, Caroline. I have never heard of this man before. He really was a genius. My jaw dropped when I read about his wife having a powered washing machine in the 1860s. Gee, whiz! Now THAT is a handy husband to have around. LOL ~ Ashley


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