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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

FIRST TO FLY

by C. F. Eckhardt
So far as is known, the first man-carrying, heavier-than-air craft—the first airplane—flew not at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, nor in East Texas the year before. Nor did it fly in California in the 1880s, though apparently a steam-powered monoplane was flown there then. It flew in Gillespie County, Texas—in 1866.

Enter Jacob Brodbeck—genius.

Jake Brodbeck was an inventor. His wife had a powered washing machine in the 1860s, using a power takeoff from the windmill. Jake designed the power takeoff. He also built rubber- band powered flying toys for children. Somehow, for some reason, Jake got the idea that he should build a machine that could not only fly, but could carry a man as well.

The idea was probably economic. The Fredericksburg to San Antonio stagecoach was the most often robbed stagecoach in Texas. Gillespie County was one of the few counties in the state that voted against secession in 1861, and—during reconstruction—one of the few counties that prospered. However, there were no banks in Fredericksburg. The closest banks were in San Antonio. If people in Fredericksburg wanted to put money in the bank, they had to send the money to San Antonio. The only ways to get it to San Antonio were to carry it one’s self or send it by stagecoach. Either way, the money was apt to be stolen. The robbery of the Fredericksburg to San Antonio stage was so common that it even found its way into fiction. O. Henry wrote a story about the robbery of the Fredericksburg to San Antonio stage.

But suppose a man could carry money to San Antonio from Fredericksburg five or six hundred feet in the air, moving along at forty or fifty miles per hour? That would make robbing the courier awfully difficult. It could also be very profitable for the person who could carry the money. His neighbors would probably pay handsomely to have their money delivered to San Antonio’s banks without the risk of being stolen. That’s likely the reason Jake Brodbeck started, in the early 1860s, to work out a way to fly.

Brodbeck’s flying machine—nobody called it an ‘airplane,’ not even an ‘aeroplane,’ the earlier form of the word—is believed to have had a boat-like, open top fuselage and wide, bird-like wings. One thing it did have was what is known as a ‘forward canard’—a stabilizer forward of the nose to prevent stalling. It needed the forward canard.

Jake didn’t have an engine. The internal combustion engine was somewhere in the future in the 1860s, and he didn’t have the materials or expertise to build a lightweight steam engine like the one that powered Langley’s ‘aerodrome’ or is rumored to have powered the California monoplane that took to the air years later. What he had was a large, powerful clockwork motor and a series of gears. This motor didn’t develop enough power for the machine to take off on its own. Jake built a ski-jump like ramp on the side of a hill near Fredericksburg. The machine was taken to the top of the ramp, then, as it gained speed sliding down the ramp, Jake would engage the motor. The machine would nose up coming off the ramp—a condition that would certainly have led to a stall, considering the very slow speed of the machine. That is, it would have stalled without a forward canard. Probably it did stall, which was why Jake added the forward canard.

Jake could jump his machine off its ramp and fly for three or four minutes under power, then glide to a landing. The machine would fly—but, unless he could devise a more lasting source of power, it was an interesting toy, nothing more.

Jake sold stock in his machine, and at the same time began to work out a way to increase the endurance. He would have to have probably an hour and a half to two hours of continuous power to fly all the way to San Antonio.

Jake hit upon an idea. Unfortunately, it was one of those ideas that work perfectly on paper but, in the real world, don’t work at all. Jake designed two interdependent clockwork motors, one to rewind the other. When Motor A became unwound, Motor B would be engaged to rewind it. As soon as Motor A was rewound by Motor B, the pilot—Jake—would manually rewind Motor B to be ready to engage it when Motor A again became unwound. While that works in theory, what happens in practice is different. As soon as spring tension in Motor A is equal to spring tension in Motor B, everything stops. Motor B can never rewind Motor A past the point of equal spring tension, and Motor A can’t function until it can release the tension on its spring, which is prevented by the tension of Motor B’s spring.

It worked on paper, and Jake apparently assumed that it would also work in fact. He decided to stage a grand exhibition of his improved machine, which could fly much farther than the original. There’s some disagreement about where the demonstration took place. Some say it was in San Antonio’s San Pedro Park, some claim it was in a park near Boerne, and some say it was in Fredericksburg. Wherever it was, Jake got the machine off the ground in good shape and flew until the main motor was exhausted. Then he engaged the second motor to rewind the first. Spring tension equaled and both motors quit. As Jake did his best to solve the unexpected situation, the machine flew into a large liveoak and crashed. That did it. Backing was withdrawn and Jake was back to the beginning.

Jake Brodbeck didn’t give up on the idea of flying. He was at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1900, carrying copies of all his drawings and specs, trying to get someone to finance building of another machine. While he was there, someone stole his papers. The crime was never solved.

In December, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a couple of bicycle makers from Ohio, Wilbur and Orville Wright, launched a flying machine of their own from the seashore’s sand. It was a biplane. It had no actual fuselage—instead, the pilot lay on his belly on the lower wing. For power it had an internal-combustion engine. It also had a forward canard, very similar to the one on Jake’s machine.

Jake’s machine needed a forward canard because it left the launching ramp in a nose-up condition with very low power. Without the forward canard it would have been subject to stalling almost immediately. However, the Wright machine took off from level ground, not in a nose-up condition, with considerably more power than the Brodbeck machine. Why, then, was a forward canard needed? Or could it be that the Wrights came across some specs for a flying machine different from their own but acknowledged to have been successfully flown, which had a forward canard—so they incorporated the forward canard into their own design? Nobody knows that answer.

At Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio—the birthplace of American military aviation—on the 75th anniversary of the arrival of LT Benjamin Foulois and the first US military airplane, a Wright type B, descendants of Jacob Brodbeck were recognized by Air Force historians for Jake’s contribution to manned, heavier-than-air flight. For Jake’s building and flying the first known airplane in world history.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

September 19 , 2007 column

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