Was a Texan the First Man to Fly in an Airplane?
One often repeated story of Texas history claims that German immigrant and Hill Country resident Jacob Brodbeck was the first man to fly in an airplane. Although accounts vary, the event allegedly occurred on September 20, 1865, approximately five months following the conclusion of the Civil War and almost four decades before the Wright brothers’ flight experiments on North Carolina’s Outer Banks between 1900 and 1903.
According to the Handbook of Texas Online, Brodbeck’s “aviation achievements remain shrouded in doubt.” This is primarily because documentary evidence is largely lacking, as Brodbeck’s drawings or blueprints for his airplane have not survived and descriptions from eyewitnesses (e.g. letters, journal entries, or newspaper reports) have never been found.
However, materials at the DRT Library do appear to suggest that, despite uncertainties about whether Brodbeck ever actually flew his airplane, he was working on a project aimed at accomplishing this feat.
In her work Jacob Brodbeck “Reached for the Sky” in Texas, descendant Anita Tatsch includes a photocopy of an article written by Brodbeck that was printed in the Galveston Tri-Weekly News on August 7, 1865. In this article, Brodbeck wrote, “For more than twenty years I have labored to construct a machine which should enable man to use, like a bird, the atmospheric region as the medium of his travels.” Brodbeck’s main purpose in writing the article was to attract funding for the construction of a large “air-ship,” the design of which he intended to patent. “I have therefore concluded to collect subscriptions,” Brodbeck wrote of his financial plans.
“These subscriptions I shall not ask as donations, but as shares, to be refunded together with a part of the proceeds of the sale of the patent right, or the sale of air-ships, as the case may be. I have put the price of one share at five dollars. Every shareholder will receive a certificate, securing to him a proportionate interest in the proceeds of the enterprise.”
A document contained in the library’s archival collections demonstrates and verifies the financial strategy Brodbeck outlined in the newspaper. The document contains four stock certificates, each for a quarter share of stock that San Antonio physician Ferdinand Herff purchased in Brodbeck’s airplane venture. Discovered by Herff’s son in 1924, the stock certificates were donated to the library by granddaughter Zelime Herff Simpson in 1966.
At the same time, Simpson also donated a final item related to Jacob Brodbeck’s “air-ship”: a six-page typed document entitled “Detailed specifications written by Jacob Brodbeck of an airship made by him.” A note attached to the end of the specifications indicates that the copy in the library’s collections is a transcription and translation of the original, the location of which is not known. According to the addendum, the specifications were “carefully prepared and written in the handwriting of the late Jacob Brodbeck prior to the construction of his airship which worked successfully as far as it would at that time. It was translated from German to English by his granddaughter, Miss Annie Brodbeck…in 1932.”
While these documents offer tantalizing evidence that Texan Jacob Brodbeck spent many years working to develop, construct, finance, and patent a means for mechanical flight, whether historians can accurately consider him the first man to fly in an airplane remains a mystery.