Jacob Brodbeck


1865 Airship

German-born Texas immigrant and Texas Hill Country school teacher/inventor JACOB BRODBECK makes his  first manned power flight some 40 years before the famous flight of  Orville and Wilbur Wright, about the time the brothers abandoned their diapers...


By Logan Hawkes


Sure, tales in Texas can get pretty tall. Like the state though, Texans and their often far-out ideas can be pretty big when it comes to striving for greatness.


True, not all of them are the best of  ideas. But for German-born Jacob Brodbeck, riding in a lighter-than-air powered machine was a dream destined for greatness, and the school teacher-turned-inventor set out to prove his idea was more ambition than senseless daydreaming, a quest for greatness that culminated in what may well be the world's first powered flight involving a human passenger.


It happened in a field not far from Luckenbach. Yep - Luckenbach - long before Willie, Waylon and the boys first stepped onto the scene. The year was 1865 in fact and the Civil War was coming to a slow end. Americans were beginning to set aside their political differences and get back to the idea that America was great - great enough to pioneer new technology and ideas that would some day change the world.


Born in the duchy of W├╝rttemberg, Germany, in 1821, Jacob attended a seminary in Esslingen and taught school for six years in W├╝rttemberg before sailing for Texas to start a new life on the Texas frontier. He reached Fredericksburg in March of 1847, became the second teacher at the Vereins Kirche and later taught at the Grape Creek school and other Gillespie County schools. He became a United States citizen in 1852, and in 1858 married Maria Christine Sophie Behrens. Apparently the art of invention didn't consume all his time. He and wife Maria eventually had twelve children.


Once a commissioner in Gillespie County, Jacob kept his idle hands busy by working on inventions. In Germany he had attempted to build a self-winding clock, and in 1869 he designed an ice-making machine.


But the projects just weren't big enough to keep Jacob happy, so settling into his new life in Texas, he decided to accomplish something that no other had been able to do. Perhaps inspired by the stories of H.G. Wells and other speculative writers of the time, Jacob began to formulate a plan for the construction of an "air ship," a self-powering passenger carrier that would, he hoped, replace the wagon as a primary form of contemporary transportation.


It was an ambitious project, but armed with financial and moral support from a group in nearby San Antonio, Jacob put together a prototype of his first aircraft design and set about building it in his past time.


In 1863 he built a small model with a rudder, wings, and a propeller powered by coiled springs. Encouraged by the success of his model at various local fairs, Brodbeck set about raising more funds to build a full-sized version of his craft. He persuaded a number of investors, including Dr. Ferdinand Herff of San Antonio, H. Guenther of New Braunfels and A. W. Engel of Cranes Mill, to buy shares in the project, promising to repay them within six months of selling the patent rights to his flying machine. On September 20, 1865, a small crowd gathered in a field near Luckenbach to see if the spring coil air ship could actually fly.


The airship, which featured an enclosed space for the "aeronaut," a water propeller in case of accidental landings on water, a compass, and a barometer.


While there were plenty of credible witnesses to the history-making event, no one bothered to take photographs, so the exact size, shape and success or failure of the air ship's maiden voyage is purely a matter of speculation. But according to published accounts, Brodbeck's air ship managed to lift off from the ground above 12 feet and fly a distance of about 100 feet before the coil came unwound and the ship crashed into a chicken coup injuring the inventor.


It may have not been an earth-shattering feat, but it certainly qualified as the first successful powered flight of an aircraft, predating Wilbur and Orville's Kittyhawk flight by 40 years.


What happened from that point in the story is rather melodramatic. While his physical injuries were classified as minor, the first flight failed to impress his investors. The lack of press coverage and local enthusiasm over the project apparently caused Brodbeck to become irritated and discouraged. He burned the wrecked air ship and walked away from the idea never to return to the drawing board.


Perhaps he, like the majority of people of those days, figured that flying through the air was an ambitious project the likes of which belonged in fairy tells and action novels. But it stop a small group of project supporters from immortalizing the inventor with a bronze sculpture that eventually was placed in San Pedro Park in San Antonio.


The project may have been abandoned, but it didn't take away the fact that his flight was a historical first.


You may not find Brodbeck's name and story in the history books of early flight, but his accomplishment goes down in Texas history as one in a long list of remarkable feats initiated by a Texan.


Hats off Jacob! From Texas with Love...