It has been quite a long time since Texas mystery and romance author as well as good friend, Caroline Clemmons, has been here on the blog. She is back today with a guest post on an aspect of aviation history.
WHO WAS THE FIRST MAN TO FLY? by Caroline Clemmons
I’ll bet you said the Wright brothers, but that’s not true. At least not according to many historians. Instead, 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’m proud of the state and most of its citizens. But no matter where you live, Jacob Brodbeck is deserving of your admiration.
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. He 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 addition to the self-winding clock he attempted to build while in Germany, in 1869 he designed an ice-making machine. His wife had a powered washing machine in the 1860s, using a power takeoff from the windmill. Jake designed the power takeoff. He also built rubber- band powered flying toys for children.
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.
In the 1860s, the internal combustion engine was somewhere in the future. According to author C. F. Eckhart, Brodbeck didn’t have the materials or expertise to build a lightweight steam engine like the one that powered Langley’s ‘aerodrome’ or is rumored to have powered the California monoplane that took to the air years later. What he had was a large, powerful clockwork motor and a series of gears. This motor didn’t develop enough power for the machine to take off on its own. Jake built a ski-jump like ramp on the side of a hill near Fredericksburg/Luckenbach. The machine was taken to the top of the ramp, then, as it gained speed sliding down the ramp, Jake would engage the motor. The machine would nose up coming off the ramp—a condition that would certainly have led to a stall, considering the very slow speed of the machine. Jake added the forward canard to prevent the stall.
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, 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.
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, which featured an enclosed space for the pilot, a water propeller in case of accidental landings on water, a compass, and a barometer, and for which Brodbeck had predicted speeds between 30 and 100 miles per hour, was said to have risen twelve feet in the air and traveled about 100 feet before the springs unwound completely and the machine crashed to the ground.
Another account, however, says that the initial flight took place in San Pedro Park, San Antonio, where a bust of Brodbeck was later placed. 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. Some accounts say he crashed into a chicken coop, another that he hit a large live oak. All the accounts agree, however, that Brodbeck's airship was destroyed by its abrupt landing, although the inventor escaped serious injury.
However, he was so disheartened by his failed flight that he burned his flying machine. There are more conflicting reports as to what happened next. Some historians say that Brodbeck burned his plane and 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.
Almost forty years after Jacob Brodbeck’s failed 1865 flight, the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Ahh, but a Texan flew first!
Caroline Clemmons ©2013, 2017
Through an illogical twist of fate, Caroline Clemmons was not born on a Texas ranch. To compensate for this inexplicable error, she writes about handsome cowboys, feisty ranch women, and scheming villains in a small office her family calls her pink cave. She and her Hero live in North Central Texas cowboy country where they ride herd on their rescued cats and dogs. The books she creates there have made her an Amazon bestselling author and won several awards. Learn more at her website as well as her blog.