One hundred years ago, the Wright brothers, proprietors of a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, initiated the modern era of aviation.
No doubt, during this centennial year, we will read much about Dayton's "aerodynamic duo," who took flight on Dec. 17, 1903, in their Wright Flyer, named, ironically enough, after one of their bicycles!
As Orville wrote of the fateful first flight, "(It)…lasted only 12 seconds, but it was nevertheless the first time in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started."
Both brothers took two turns in their new flying machine, until a gust of wind sent it drifting - breaking its wings, bending its chain guides and damaging its motor.
What we may not be so familiar with, this year, was that one of the guiding inspirations of Wilbur and Orville Wright was a German Jew, Otto Lilienthal.
He is recorded as making history's first series of controlled glider flights. As early as 1892, Lilienthal began his work with gliders, jumping off a high dirt mound left from construction work on a canal in a Berlin suburb. He designed his own 44-pound glider with a wing area of 150 square feet.
Over the next four years, Lilienthal undertook more than 2,000 powerless
glider flights, sometimes attaining distances of 1,000 feet and heights of 100 feet. By shifting his body to alter the center of gravity and to control the glider in brief but successful flights, this first Jewish pilot contributed new theories of aerodynamics.
Soon he pondered powering his flights with a motor. But it was not to be. On Aug. 10, 1896, after remarking to a friend that "sacrifices must be made…if man is to learn to fly," Lilienthal embarked upon his final flight.
A sudden gust of wind wrested control of his glider, and Lilienthal plunged 25 feet to his death. Yet his sacrifice lived on. In 1908, among their reminiscences published in The Century magazine, the Wright brothers wrote of how their childhood interest in flight had long gone without pursuit.
"It was not until the news of the sad death of Lilienthal reached America in the summer of 1896," they affirmed, "that we again gave more than passing attention to the subject."
In devouring published studies on flying, the brothers now concentrated in particular on Lilienthal's theories. When enumerating their inspirations, the Wright brothers designated Lilienthal among the "great missionaries of the flying cause," one who with his "unquenchable enthusiasm… infected us" and "transformed idle curiosity into the active zeal of workers.”
And so, as we embark upon the centennial year of Dayton's own Wright brothers and their first flight, let us also recall with pride the inspiration they derived from our own Otto Lilienthal, who sacrificed his life that others might someday become airborne.
Rabbi Judy Chessin is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Or in Dayton, Ohio.