I hope no one expects me to say something profound on my deathbed. Sorry, posterity—I’ll be busy.
Besides, not to be a spoilsport, but some of history’s most memorable “last words,” from Thomas Jefferson to James Joyce, turn out, on close examination, to be either made up, misremembered, or embroidered after the fact by some relative or admirer.
Such were the sour thoughts running through my head when I read the (supposed) final words of German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal, who died 120 years ago today, following a crash while testing one of his gliders. Lilienthal’s last words, as reported by his sister-in-law more than 30 years later and repeated many times since: “Opfer müssen gebracht warden.” Sacrifices must be made.
In fact, Otto Lilienthal made many sacrifices, and suffered multiple injuries, in the course of advancing the science of aviation over a period of five years beginning in 1891. Inspired by his study of birdflight, and with the assistance of his brother Gustav, Otto made more than 2,000 well-documented glider flights. He was the most accomplished and probably the best-known aeronaut of his day, earning the nickname the “Flying Man.”
On Sunday, August 9, 1896, his luck ran out. With his mechanic and assistant Paul Beylich, Lilienthal went to a location about 50 miles northwest of Berlin, which had a natural hill that was ideal for his glider test flights. He took off, flew briefly, then hung motionless in midair…and plummeted to the ground from a height of 50 feet.
Beylich ran to the spot where Lilienthal lay, unconscious but apparently uninjured, beneath the wreckage. The fallen aviator quickly came to, and asked, “What happened?” followed by “I’ll relax a bit, and we’ll continue.” Beylich answered that the glider was too smashed up to fly, and with the help of some locals, took Lilienthal to a nearby inn, where a doctor examined him. “I can still see him today, lying on his back with his beautiful, full, blond beard, not remarking about any pain,” the doctor recalled later, according to Lilienthal biographer Werner Schwipps. Although the Flying Man was paralyzed from the waist down, the doctor didn’t think he was in danger of dying.
The next day the doctor put his patient—now resting on a litter—on a train to Berlin. During the journey Lilienthal “became soporous and sleepy,” and he died that afternoon in a Berlin clinic, never having regained consciousness. Modern physicians think the likely cause was a brain injury.
As for Lilienthal’s last words, there are conflicting reports. A story in the New York Journal the day after the aviator’s death quotes him as saying, “Mine is the true inventor’s death. I am satisfied to die in the interest of science.” But that account appears nowhere else, has no attribution, and can probably be ruled out.
Two of Lilienthal’s friends, Alard du Bois-Reymond and mathematician Carl Runge, wrote a letter to Nature a few weeks later, giving an account of the airman’s death as heard directly from Beylich. Although some of their details are wrong, the authors make no mention of last words, and say that when Lilienthal’s brother Gustav finally arrived on the scene, “he found that [Otto] had swooned again; and he did not recover his consciousness until [sic] death set in.”
It wasn’t until 1930, in a book written by Gustav with his wife, Anna, that the famous words appear: “His last intelligible words are said to have been: ‘Sacrifices must be made.’ ” And that’s the phrase carved on the stone placed over Lilienthal’s grave in 1940.
Bernd Lukasch, director of the Otto Lilienthal Museum in Anklam, Germany, doubts that this was the aviator’s actual last utterance, although he does allow that “Lilienthal did say these words very often.”
The Flying Man’s sacrifice of his own life—although he never intended it as such—did, in fact, turn out to be critically important to the progress of aviation. In August 1896, two other brothers, owners of a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, read the accounts of Lilienthal’s death with great interest. As Wilbur Wright said in 1901:
My own active interest in aeronautical problems dates back to the death of Lilienthal in 1896. The brief notice of his death which appeared in the telegraphic news at that time aroused a passive interest which had existed from my childhood and led me to take down from the shelves of our home library a book on Animal Mechanism, by Professor Marey, which I had already read several times. From this I was led to read more modern works, and as my brother soon became equally interested with myself we soon passed from the reading to the thinking, and finally to the working stage.
Recently, engineers at DLR, the German aerospace agency, conducted wind-tunnel tests of a full-scale replica of Lilienthal’s glider built by the Anklam museum, and came away with renewed respect for what the Flying Man accomplished 125 years ago. Project leader Andreas Dillmann said in a release: “From an aerodynamic perspective it is an absolutely flawless construction, inherently stable in all flight ranges.” In fact, Dillmann adds, Lilienthal’s machine was more stable than early Wright brothers designs tested in NASA wind tunnels. “The flight characteristics of the Lilienthal glider are equivalent to those of the typical training glider used during the’20s and ’30s—designs that flew decades after Lilienthal.”
Watch a video about the wind-tunnel tests here: