FIRST MAN TO FLY IN AN AIRPLANE?

Always interested in mechanics and inventing, Jacob Brodbeck tried––apparently without

Jacob Brodbeck

success––to build a self-winding clock while he was teaching school in his native Württemberg, Germany. In 1847 he arrived in Fredericksburg to serve as the

Original Vereins Kirche in Fredericksburg

second teacher at the Vereins Kirche and then taught at other schools in Gillespie County. He married one of his students in 1858, and despite traveling the county as a surveyor and serving as district school supervisor, he and his wife had a dozen children.

Brodbeck’s real dream, which he worked on for twenty years, was to build an “air-ship.” He moved in 1863 to San Antonio to serve as a school inspector and took with him a small model of his invention that consisted of a rudder, wings, and a propeller powered by coiled springs.

When the blockade of Texas ports during the Civil War stopped the shipment of ice blocks cut from the lakes in the North, Brodbeck designed an ice-making machine. By the time his machine was complete in 1869, there were three plants producing artificial ice in San Antonio (and five other ice plants in the United States).

Meantime, Brodbeck attended local fairs to demonstrate the success of his model air-ship and to raise money to build a full-sized model large enough to carry a man. The Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo owns a copy of an article written by Brodbeck and published in the Galveston Tri-Weekly News on August 7, 1865, in which he touts his views: “For more than twenty years I have labored to construct a machine which should enable man to use, like a bird, the atmospheric region as the medium of his travels.” He sought subscriptions, not donations to fund and patent his airship. Stock certificates for the investors have been donated to the library.

Several prominent men invested in the venture and accounts vary as to when and where the “flight” took place. Brodbeck’s machine was equipped with an enclosed space for the “aeronaut,” a propeller for landing on water, a compass, and a barometer that was intended to measure the predicted speed at between 30 and 100 miles per hour. Some claim that on September 10, 1865, in a field east of Luckenbach––yes, the same Luckenbach made famous years later by Willie, Waylon and the boys––the airship rose twelve feet and traveled about 100 feet before the springs completely unwound and the sudden landing destroyed the contraption. Brodbeck, the “aeronaut,” was not seriously hurt.

Thought to be the photo of Brodbeck’s destroyed “air-ship.” Property DRT Library

Brodbeck bust in San Antonio’s San Pedro Park.

Another account of the flight places it in San Antonio’s San Pedro Park where a bust of Brodbeck was placed several years later. And a third rendition claims the flight actually took place in 1868.

Regardless of the locale and the date, Brodbeck was undeterred and set about traveling the United States to raise money for another attempt. He could not persuade audiences to invest in the plan, and he was in Michigan his papers were stolen. The DRT Library holds a typed document that claims to be the transcription and translation from German of the inventor’s detailed specifications of his airship

He returned to his ranch outside Luckenbach and lived for another six years after the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.

AIRSHIP FLYS BEFORE WRIGHT BROTHERS?

Residents in the East Texas town of Pittsburg house in the local museum a full-size replica of the Ezekiel Airship, which many old timers declare flew almost a year before the Wright brother’s claim to fame at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Burrell Cannon, a mechanical genius and part-time Baptist preacher, inspired by the first and tenth chapters of Ezekiel in which the prophet writes of angelic vehicles composed of wheels within wheels, worked over twenty years building models and improving his design for a flying machine.  In 1901, Cannon convinced Pittsburg businessmen to establish the Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company and issue stock for twenty thousand dollars to underwrite the project.

Employees of the Pittsburg Foundry and Machine Company built the airship between March and October 1902.  Its engine turned four sets of paddles, which powered large, fabric-covered wings—incorporating a compulsion force similar to a helicopter.

Local residents claim seeing the airship fly for about 160 feet at a height of ten to twelve feet. A former machine shop worker admitted that one Sunday, when Cannon and the other investors were out of town, the employees took the plane out to the field across from the shop and he flew it.  All the conspirators, fearing the loss of their jobs, made a pact not to tell anyone.  If the story is true, it explains why no newspaper coverage exists and why officials of the company denied the flight.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made their famous flight.

The next year investors loaded the Ezekiel on a flatbed railroad car for a trip to the St. Louis World’s Fair.  As the train neared Texarkana, a fierce storm blew the airship off the railcar and destroyed it.

The Reverend Cannon did not attempt another flight until 1913 in Chicago when his new craft flew only a few feet, hit a telephone pole, and received damage to the bottom of the ship. The Reverend, declaring God had not willed the airship to fly, promptly gave up the project.

A Texas Historical Marker tells the story in Pittsburg at Fulton and South Market streets beside the railroad tracks.