North Carolina’s license plates may read “First in Flight,” but it was in the fine state of Texas that man first rose above the ground to fulfill our everlasting dream of flight. It was in 1865—a whopping forty years before the infamous Wright brothers conquered gravity—that a schoolteacher by the name of Jacob Brodbeck took to the skies for the first time in human history.
Jacob Brodbeck, German-born, was a Texas schoolteacher throughout Gillespie County and Fredericksburg during the mid-nineteenth century. Brodbeck earned various successes in his chosen profession, eventually becoming district school supervisor and county commissioner, but it was in the art of invention that Brodbeck’s true passion lay. From youth Brodbeck spent his free time with his nose in a book and his hands in a puzzle, attempting to build a self-winding clock before he even left his homeland. As an adult Brodbeck successfully created an ice-making machine. But these smaller projects only whetted his inventive appetite, and Brodbeck set his sights on flight.
Inspired by science fiction and speculative writers of the era, Brodbeck tinkered with the idea of an “air-ship” for twenty years. In 1863 he built a model air-ship, compete with rudder, wings, and a propeller. Brodbeck began touring local fairs with his model, gaining applause as well as funds and investors for his full-sized air-ship. He promised investors a share of the profits from the sale of patent rights to his invention, but even with their funds Brodbeck would have come up short if not for another investment.
At the time, central Texas was becoming a haven for the hardy grapevine, locals investing in the crop and the wine industry. Brodbeck anticipated the success of the vintage and invested in his own barrels and grapes for producing wine. With the sweetness signature of his native land, Brodbeck’s wine gained popularity throughout Gillespie County. Brodbeck sold it to friends, strangers, and even bars for mainstream distribution. With the profits from his wine, in addition to investments from investors, Brodbeck was able to set about building his air-ship.
Brodbeck’s air-ship possessed many of the features one would expect in an early model airplane. Like his smaller model, the air-ship’s integral parts included a rudder, wings, and propeller, in addition to an enclosed space for the “aeronaut,” or driver, a water propeller for accidental water landings, a compass, and a barometer. Brodbeck had high hopes for his invention and predicted speeds of thirty to one hundred miles per hour.
Though accounts vary, the story of Brodbeck’s flight tend to go along these lines: on September 20, 1865, spectators gathered in a field outside Luckenbach or San Antonio in anticipation of man’s first flight. Brodbeck, the aeronaut of his own invention, started his contraption and miraculously gained height; the air-ship rose twelve feet above the ground and travelled 100 feet before the springs unwound and crashed into a nearby chicken coup. Brodbeck emerged unharmed physically but with crushed spirits.
After his initial, semi-successful flight, Brodbeck’s investors lost hope in his dreams of an air-ship. Disheartened but still hopeful, Brodbeck took to the road on a fundraising tour of the country. When his papers were stolen in Michigan and he no longer had even a blueprint or drawing to inspire his investors, Brodbeck finally gave up his ambitions in aviation. He returned to Texas and teaching for the remainder of his days. But, in a minor concession of success, Brodbeck did live long enough to hear of his dreams becoming a reality, though whether he regarded the Wright brothers as competitors or innovators, we will never know.