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Monash University
Karl Jatho’s biplane, November 1903

On This Day: Karl Jatho Makes Alleged First Manned, Motorized Flight

August 18, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Aug. 18, 1903, German inventor Karl Jatho completed a motorized flight in Hanover, Germany, four months before the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Jatho Flies Plane Four Months Before Wright Brothers

German inventor Karl Jatho began testing his own flying machine in early August 1903, moving from a three-winged design to two, basing his initial approach on a Zanonia seed.

Outside of the city of Hanover, in front of four people, Jatho used a simple 10-horsepower motor to elevate his machine in a series of progressively larger hops. According to the Karl-Jatho-Project, he traveled roughly 60 feet at a height of 3-4 feet.

By comparison, the Wright brothers would travel a distance of 120 feet four months later, followed by an 852-foot attempt later that same day.

Jatho’s design had several differences from the Wright brothers’. His wings were flat, while the Wrights’ were curved. Also, writes the Karl-Jatho-Project, “Whereas the Wright brothers used a catapult to take off and exploited the updraught from the incline, Karl-Jatho took off from flat ground with the exclusive impetus of his engine.”

Jatho would improve his design and launch a second attempt with the “Motordrachen Nr. 2” plane in November. This time, he traveled 200 feet at a height of about 10 feet. Unlike his first attempt, there are surviving photos and sketches of his plane.

Though he had achieved unprecedented results, he grew frustrated that he could not do better. He gave up flying, writing in his journal, “in spite of many efforts, (I) cannot make longer or higher flights. Motor weak.”

Who Flew First?

Though Jatho’s claim has been championed by many as the true first flight, it is worth noting that a number of inventors claimed a similar feat, dating back to the efforts of Sir Hiram Maxim in 1894.

Jeff Scott, writing for Aerospaceweb.org, says, “I've found at least seven other pioneers with credible claims to the title of first to fly, some dating back nearly a decade before the success of the Wright Flyer.”

Though a source of contention among aviation historians, this is hardly the first time great inventions or ideas have emerged around the same time, miles, if not continents apart. In an article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell found numerous famous inventions and ideas that seemed to emerge from different minds, in different locations, without any obvious connection between the two.

The common factor among all of these events is that one mind, due to location, connections or simple good luck, is remembered as the true inventor. In the case of the airplane, Orville and Wilbur Wright’s experiment at Kitty Hawk was highly publicized and celebrated, inspiring the start of an era of aviation. They are remembered as the driving creative force behind man’s first motorized flight.

Jatho’s work, on the other hand, was known to few at the time, and he gave up before he could be widely recognized. Though he was eventually recognized as a hero in his native Germany and continued in the aviation field, achieving sustained flight in one of his machines in 1909, he is a largely unknown figure in history.

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