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Jacob Brodbeck And The Dawn Of Flight

gmarquardt has an M.A. in history and German from SWTSU and has over 30 years teaching experience at public high schools.

One of the more unique German-Texan stories is that of Jacob Brodbeck, who just possibly piloted an airplane 40 years before the Wright Brothers.

Born 13 October 1821 in Plattenhardt auf den Fildern, Württemberg, Germany to a poor family, Jacob Friedrich Brodbeck attended seminary in Esslingen where he became a schoolteacher. He learned to play the organ and piano. Never idle, he enjoyed inventing things and tinkering with his hands. In fact, he had toyed with inventing a self-winding clock.

He taught for seven years before immigrating to Texas in 1846, subsequently residing in Fredericksburg by 1847. In Texas he earned his living through teaching, becoming the second teacher at the Vereins Kirche. Meaning community church, the Vereins Kirche was a multi-use, eight-sided building housing a church, school, and general meeting place, in addition to being utilized as a defensive fortification in case of Indian attack.

Brodbeck held various teaching assignments throughout Gillespie county, earning his citizenship in 1852. In 1858 at age 38, he married his former student, 16-year-old Maria Christine Sophie Behrens. They had twelve children. Typical of German-Texans of the time, he also served his community as a county surveyor, district school supervisor, and a county commissioner. He moved to Luckenbach, where he worked at a teacher for a few years, then moved to San Antonio in 1863 where he became a school inspector.


Aviation was never far from his mind. While sailing to America, he noticed how the ship was constructed. He noticed how the gulls flew and became inspired to build an airplane. Perhaps motivated by past inventors in Germany, such as the “Tailor of Ulm,” who created a type of hang glider, Brodbeck planned to create an “air ship,” as he called it. He hoped it to be self-powered in the form of a winding spring (such as in the clocks he tinkered with). I addition, it had propellers in case of a water landing.

Working and tinkering on his invention, by 1863 he had manufactured a small replica of his airplane. He traveled the nearby hill-country area seeking funds for his invention. He persuaded many local German-Texans to help finance his dream.

On 20 September 1865, he was ready to test his completed “air ship.” A small group of onlookers gathered in a field near Luckenbach to watch history unfold. Brodbeck got into the airplane and took off, climbing to about 10 feet off the ground for about 100 feet of flight before crashing back to the ground. His spring had become completely unwound, no longer spinning the propeller. His ship was destroyed although he escaped without serious injury.

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Although some believe he gave up at that moment, he seems to have traveled through the U.S. and Europe soliciting more funds to continue his research. He may have tried to fly again in 1874, but no records remain. In fact, no drawings, blueprints, or photos of Brodbeck’s airplane have ever been found. However, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas do claim to have a photograph and other evidence that document Brodbeck’s achievements.

Jacob Brodbeck moved back to Luckenbach and died 08 January 1910, six years after the Wright Brothers flew the first successful heavier-than-air aircraft. In Texas lore, Brodbeck is known as the “Father of US Aviation.”

Jacob Brodbeck

Jacob Brodbeck

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FlourishAnyway from USA on July 19, 2020:

I’ve never heard of this man and was very impressed with the article. I wonder why the Texas group won’t share their proof if they indeed have it? It could rewrite history.

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