Who built the first plane? Was it the Wright brothers or some folks right here in Texas?
Two Texas airmen claimed to have beaten the Wright brothers to building the first airplane. On Dec. 17, 2003, America celebrated the centennial of the Wright brothers flight over the dunes near Kitty Hawk, N.C. Nearly forgotten to the history books are Jacob Brodbeck of San Antonio and the Rev. Burrell Cannon of Pittsburg, Texas. Both men are known in Texas history for at least coming close to making an aircraft.
Brodbeck's claim to the title of inventor of a heavier-than-air flying machine is the older of the two. At the end of the 19th century, science was moving at an astounding rate. Manned flight seemed to be in the grasp of possibility. To support research, huge cash prizes were offered for the first flights in New York, London, and Paris.
Born in Germany, Brodbeck moved to Fredericksburg in 1847, where he taught school before moving to San Antonio in 1863. He supposedly tried designing a self-winding watch before turning his attention to his "air-ship."
For 20 years Brodbeck worked on his design until he finally built a functioning model in his San Antonio workshop. The plane had a rudder, wings, and a propeller powered by a coiled spring. According to descriptions, the wings were remarkably similar to modern aircraft wings. He included a boat propeller on the bottom of the craft in case of a wet landing.
Brodbeck sold shares in his aircraft company hoping to build a version big enough to carry an "aeronaut." The most favored story is that on Sept. 20, 1865, Brodbeck took his airship to a field outside of Luckenbach and flew about 100 feet before the spring unwound and the machine crashed to the ground. Another account says the ship flew in San Antonio's San Pedro Park, where a bust of Brodbeck now stands. A second bust of the inventor is in the main park in Fredericksburg.
The inventor from Gillespie County was never able to build a second craft. No drawings or photographs survive from the flight to prove Brodbeck's claim. He died in Luckenbach six years after the Wright brothers' famous flight.
The Rev. Cannon suffered from the same lack of a good sales agent that Brodbeck had. A Baptist minister and an experienced engineer, Cannon took his inspiration for a flying machine from the book of Ezekiel, in particular the passage that reads, "and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up" (Ezekiel 1:19).
The Ezekiel Airship made in Pittsburg was ingenious if not plausible. A four-cylinder gas engine drove a series of paddles. The paddles were attached to a series of wheels inside of wheels that would create various degrees of lift for a sail that covered the fuselage. Additional control of the craft could be executed by changing the angle of the sail.
By November 1902, the prototype of the Ezekiel Airship was finished. Accounts say the airship flew a full 12 months before the Wright brothers' flight. Eyewitnesses claimed the airship lurched forward and then rose into the air. The engine vibrated so badly that it was turned off and the airship gently descended back to the ground.
A former foundry employee claimed later that he and other employees were the first to fly the machine. While Cannon and company officials were away, they took the plane out and flew it about 160 feet at a height of 10-12 feet. Fearing the loss of their jobs, the conspirators made a pact of silence.
The minister and company officials never actually claimed the airship had flown. He planned to travel around the country raising funds to continue his research. In Texarkana, a storm tossed the airship from its rail car perch and smashed it to the ground.
Cannon made one more attempt to build the Ezekiel Airship in 1913 but soon gave up. He died in Marshall in 1922. In 1987, the Pittsburg Optimist Club built a replica of the airship that is now housed in the Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Museum in Pittsburg. For information, call 903/856-1200 or visit www.pittsburgtxmuseum.com.
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