31 May 1811 – Albrecht Berblinger presents his hang glider

On 31st May 1811, Albrecht Berblinger, also known as der Schneider von Ulm (the Tailor of Ulm), made a public presentation of his heavier-than-air flying device, most probably a hang glider. Regrettably, his attempt to fly across the Danube river failed, and Berblinger fell into the cold waters.

Albrecht Ludwig Berblinger was born on 24th June 1770 in Ulm, in present-day Germany. He was the seventh child in a poor family and, after the death of his parents, was sent to an orphanage.

Berblinger´s dream was to become a watchmaker, regrettably he was forced to train as tailor. Nevertheless, he was still interested in mechanics and emerged as a capable inventor. One of his most known works was a leg prosthesis he developed for a wounded soldier.

However, Berblinger´s biggest ambition was to build a flying machine. His ideas were based on observation of owls and their flights. As the years went by, works on the heavier-than-air glider absorbed him so much that Berblinger was taunted and ridiculed, as well as threatened with being rejected from the tailors´ guild. Despite that, he not only invested all his money in that development but also began to look for sponsors.

Eventually, the news about Berblinger´s development reached Frederick I, the king of Württemberg. The king himself invested twenty Louis d´or (a gold coin introduced by Louis XIII in France) in the tailor´s work but soon began to demand any prove the device is working.

Berblinger secretly did some initial test of his flying machine in vineyards located on Michelsberg. Taking into consideration the laws of thermodynamics we know today, it was an appropriate location for glider flying, offering some rising pockets of hot air now called thermals. Those updrafts convinced Berblinger the hang glider is able to fly.

Berblinger´s hang glider (source: Johannes Hans, Wikipedia, Public Domain)

At the end of May 1811, the king, his sons and the crown prince of Bavaria visited Ulm to see the demonstration flight of the Berblinger´s glider.

Initially, the Tailor of Ulm wanted to take-off from the top of Ulmer Münster (the Ulm Minster, a Lutheran church being currently considered the tallest church in the world). The church featured a tower with a height of 161.53 metres and a platform at approximately 102 metres that Berblinger intended to use as a starting point. Regrettably, he was refused by the city council.

Instead of that, Berblinger was told to fly from the top of Adlerbastei (Eagles Bastion), part of the city fortification located close to the Danube river. It was a completely different location the Tailor of Ulm expected, as the wall of the bastion had a height of only 13 metres. In addition, he was told to fly across the river to please the king and other spectators.

Subconsciously, Berblinger felt the location is wrong and tried to postpone the flight as much as possible. In addition, he also built a scaffold to increase the height of starting point to 20 metres. Initially, he wanted to fly at the beginning of June, but the king was to leave Ulm on 31st May, so the first demonstration was scheduled for that day. Nevertheless, Berblinger told the weather conditions are wrong and postponed the flight for the next day.

Today´s knowledge of thermodynamics confirms that Berblinger´s feelings were right. The cold waters of Danube, together with fortification walls, were creating strong thermal downdrafts at that location. And the inventor knew the conditions were much worse than he discovered at south, warm slopes of Michelsberg.

Berblinger´s flight on 31st May, undated engraving (source: Wikipedia, Public Domain)

Finally, on 31st May, the demonstration began. The king already left the city, but Berblinger was watched by his brother and citizens of Ulm. However, the inventor was still afraid to fly and waited hour after hour for better wind conditions.

Approximately at 5 p.m., when patience of the royal guests had run out, Berblinger was pushed by a police officer and fell down. Taken by surprise, the Tailor of Ulm was not able to align wings of his glider in right position to fly and due to that was unable to reach the speed needed for gliding. Together with the aforementioned downdraft, it led to a quick failure. Berblinger and his glider crashed into the river.

It meant a sad end for the Tailor of Ulm. He was called liar and fraud, and his development was considered nothing more than a con. His workshop lost customers and in 1829, Berblinger died in a poorhouse, penniless and forgotten.

Berblinger´s flying device was recovered from Danube and publicly burned under official supervision.

In 1986, at the 175th anniversary of Berblinger´s attempt to fly across the Danube, the Ulm city council organized a competition to find if such stunt was ever possible. It proved that a modern hang glider was the only device to cross the river, despite the downdraft.

Another test made that year, proved the Berblinger´s hang glider was able to fly. However, it was performed on the mountain slope, in conditions similar to those the Tailor of Ulm made his initial, secret flights.

Humoristic presentation of Berblinger´s flight demostration, undated drawing (source: Wikipedia, Public Domain)

Cover photo: Der Schneider von Ulm, undated postcard (source: Wikipedia, Public Domain)
Der Schneider von Ulm. Geschichte eines zweihundert Jahre zu früh Geborenen by Max Eyth; Der Schneider von Ulm, film directed by Edgar Reitz; Wikipedia