May 242009
 

Texan had “Wine-Powered” Flight before the Wright Brothers

Born in Germany in 1821, Jacob Brodbeck taught school there before starting a new life on the Texas frontier. He reached Fredericksburg in 1847 and became a teacher at the Vereins Kirche and later at the nearby Grape Creek School. In due course Brodbeck married and fathered a large brood of twelve children. This would be considered a lifetime achievement for most men of his day, but Brodbeck was also consumed by invention.

While in Germany he had attempted to build a self-winding clock, and later designed an ice-making machine. Brodbeck rose to the position of Gillespie County school commissioner while keeping his mind and hands busy working on new inventions with even grander ambitions “fermenting” in his active mind.

Inspired by stories by H.G. Wells, Brodbeck strived for something that no other had been able to do and began to formulate a plan for the construction of what was in his own words “an air ship….a self-powering passenger carrier that would replace the wagon as a primary form of contemporary transportation”. Brodbent started by designing and building a model with a rudder, wings, and a propeller powered by coiled springs. His sense of aerodynamics was developed after spending countless hours watching and studying birds in flight. The success of his model encouraged Brodbeck and he set out to raise funds to build an actual large-scale version of his aircraft that he intended to pilot.

In this pursuit, he moved his family from Luckenbach to San Antonio where he intended to further develop his ideas and to persuade investors.  But alas, he had little personal money and needed a way to sustain his aircraft ambition. First, Brodbeck secured a job as inspector of schools in the Alamo city which brought an improved salary over his previous job, but he was still short of the funds needed to further develop his invention and to attract other investors. What he needed was something that he could do at home to supplement his income.

In the mid-1800s, central Texas was settled by many German farmers some of which were growing grapes and making wine for both personal consumption and to supply a growing local and statewide markets. Seeing this as a highly profitable venture, Brodbeck bought local grapes and used twenty gallon barrels to ferment his grape wine. Brodbeck’s wine was likely sweet as most recipes from that day and time called for ample sugar. It was also apparently palatable and impressed the locals.  It is reported that customers started to buy it and in short order local saloons in San Antonio bought all that he could produce.

http://www.texasescapes.com/Cartoons/First-Air-Flight-10907.htm

The extra money from the wine business was the capital Brodbeck needed. Shortly thereafter, he convinced investors to buy shares in the project at $1.25 each, promising to repay them by selling the patent rights to his flying machine.

In mid-September 1865, a crowd of spectators gathered in an open field near Luckenbach, Texas (Yes….the same place made popular in song by “Waylon, Willie and Boys” over a hundred years later) to see if the mechanically powered air ship would actually fly. The morning air was cool and a warm sun climbed over the Texas hills as Brodbeck announced his flight plans to the assembled crowd after which he climbed aboard his heavier than air, mechanical fying machine.

According to local accounts, with Brodbeck piloting, the aircraft managed to take to the air and sustain a height of 12 feet and fly a distance of about 100 feet until it lost power crashing into a chicken coop injuring the inventor. This monumental event took place in a Texas field nearly forty years earlier than the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight. However, despite there being plenty of witnesses to the history-making flight, no one bothered to take photographs or officially record it for posterity, so the exact size, shape and success of the air ship’s maiden voyage was mainly left to speculation.

While Brodbeck’s injuries were minor, the flight failed to impress his investors. The lack of press coverage and only limited enthusiasm over the project caused Brodbeck to become irritated and discouraged. He burned the wrecked air ship and walked away from his invention. Then, Brodbeck returned to his family, a steady job and a successful part-time wine business, without even a single reprise of his idea of a powered aircraft.

References:

1. J. Maguire, Texas Amazing but True: Tall Texas Tales with a Difference, Eakin Press, Austin, Texas, 1984.

2.  R.T. Moore, Air Flight before the Wright Brothers, TexasEscapes Online Magazine,  http://www.texasescapes.com/Cartoons/First-Air-Flight-10907.htm, January 9, 2007

3.  The Brodbeck Airship, Texas less Traveled, The Best Kept Travel Secrets of the Lone Star State, Lost Planet Media,  http://texaslesstraveled.com/brodbeck.htm

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