Classic History Books

William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

"We think the population is not yet quite fit for them, and therefore there will be none. Our friend
suggests so many inconveniences from piracy out of the high air to orchards and lone houses, and also to

high fliers, and the total inadequacy of the present system of defence, that we have not the heart to break

the sleep of the great public by the repetition of these details. When children come into the library we put

the inkstand and the watch on the high shelf until they be a little older."

About the year 1870 a young German engineer, named Otto Lilienthal, began some experiments with a
motorless glider, which in course of time were to make him world-famed. For nearly twenty years

Lilienthal carried on his aerial research work in secrecy, and it was not until about the year 1890 that his

experimental work was sufficiently advanced for him to give demonstrations in public.

The young German was a firm believer in what was known as the "soaring-plane" theory of flight. From
the picture here given we can get some idea of his curious machine. It consisted of large wings, formed

of thin osiers, over which was stretched light fabric. At the back were two horizontal rudders shaped

somewhat like the long forked tail of a swallow, and over these was a large steering rudder. The wings

were arranged around the glider's body. The whole apparatus weighed about 40 pounds.

Lilienthal's flights, or glides, were made from the top of a specially-constructed large mound, and in
some cases from the summit of a low tower. The "birdman" would stand on the top of the mound, full to

the wind, and run quickly forward with outstretched wings. When he thought he had gained sufficient

momentum he jumped into the air, and the wings of the glider bore him through the air to the base of the


To preserve the balance of his machine - always a most difficult feat - he swung his legs and hips to one
side or the other, as occasion required, and, after hundreds of glides had been made, he became so skilful

in maintaining the equilibrium of his machine that he was able to cover a distance, downhill, of 300


Later on, Lilienthal abandoned the glider, or elementary form of monoplane, and adopted a system of
superposed planes, corresponding to the modern biplane. The promising career of this clever German

was brought to an untimely end in 1896, when, in attempting to glide from a height of about 80 yards, his

apparatus made a sudden downward swoop, and he broke his neck.

Now that Lillenthal's experiments had proved conclusively the efficiency of wings, or planes, as carrying
surfaces, other engineers followed in his footsteps, and tried to improve on his good work.

The first "birdman" to use a glider in this country was Mr. Percy Pilcher who carried out his experiments
at Cardross in Scotland. His glides were at first made with a form of apparatus very similar to that

employed by Lilienthal, and in time he came to use much larger machines. So cumbersome, however,

was his apparatus - it weighed nearly 4 stones - that with such a great weight upon his shoulders he could

not run forward quickly enough to gain sufficient momentum to "carry off" from the hillside. To assist

him in launching the apparatus the machine was towed by horses, and when sufficient impetus had been

gained the tow-rope was cast off.

Three years after Lilienthal's death Pilcher met with a similar accident. While making a flight his glider
was overturned, and the unfortunate "birdman " was dashed to death.

In America there were at this time two or three "human birds", one of the most famous being M. Octave
Chanute. During the years 1895-7 Chanute made many flights in various types of gliding machines, some


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