Stadtansicht Ulm, alter Stich

Illustration des Flugversuchs

… and his dream of flying

Berblinger had discovered and adopted the dream of flying, not without success if different sources can be trusted: The master tailor and his self-built flying machine are said to have glided from one summer house to the next on the Michelsberg. This may not have been a giant leap, these were however the first gliding flights in aviation history.
Naturally his construction was not an isolated development. Aviation was in the air, so to speak, and in Vienna, watchmaker Jacob Degen attempted flights under the patronage of the imperial court and Vienna University. It is extremely likely that Berblinger knew about Degen's flying machine, even copied the design but then changed the principle: If Degen tried to rise by flapping wings, Berblinger was content to simply glide from an elevated position -a method which was practiced again later, anno 1896, by Otto Lilienthal, albeit with more successful results.
Berblinger himself has left no design drawings of his machine. The famous copperplate engraving by Johannes Hans proclaims to show Berblinger's wings from above and front. Whether it is merely a revised copy of Degen's flying machine or whether Berblinger's development is portrayed accurately is a matter of contention among experts.

Around the time when Berblinger wanted to undertake his first attempt at flight the King of Württemberg, King Friedrich I, was on his way to visit Ulm. It was the year 1811. Ulm had become part of Württemberg one year before and was looking forward to the first visit of the new ruler. What better spectacle was there to offer him than a flight? Therefore Berblinger's undertaking was rescheduled for the date the king would be in Ulm: May 30th. Since we can be sure that Ulm did not intend to become a laughing stock ,we may safely assume that the success of the flight attempt seemed a given fact. This may have been due not only to Berblinger's good reputation as a tailor and mechanic but also to the public knowledge of his successful flights on the Michelsberg.

Berblinger must have calculated the height of his starting point on the basis of those experiments. He had a scaffold 7 meters high erected on top of the "Eagle Bastion", which itself rose to a height of 12 meters above the Danube. This gave him a total height of 19 meters above the river to start from. The distance to the island was 54 meters; to the opposite bank it was 64 meters.

But as the moment to jump was upon him he became insecure, tested the already-harnessed machine and "Instead of flying he was seen to merely dance about". Then he announced that "something was broken on one of the wings and he would not be able to fly today" as the gazette reports. The king showed indulgence and presented Berblinger with 20 Louis d'or, accompanied by the statement "that each invention must be encouraged toward further progress even if it does not meet the expectations right from the start".

Berblingers´ crash

Contrary to the rumours coursing through town later on, the king had not tied his gift to the condition that Berblinger had to repeat his attempt. However he did try again the next day after the king had departed, this time in front of the king´s brother, who is reputed to have had less sympathy toward Berblinger´s renewed reluctance.

The wings may have been repaired but in contrast to the testing ground on the Michelsberg, the air above the Danube was lacking thermal currents. Berblinger may have intuitively felt this, but thermal physics were unknown at the time. Whether he did jump voluntarily or whether - as has also been alleged – he was pushed by a policeman, Berblinger plummeted into the river like a rock and had to be rescued by boatmen. Reactions were quite merciless, not only by the Ulm bourgeoisie who had always known that man is not made to fly. Even those who where open toward progress expressed devastating criticism, for instance the “German National newspaper”. One month after his failed attempt, this paper wrote about Berblinger,” Indeed, he seems to possess neither theoretical knowledge nor mechanical genius”, adding that, “He is scourged with a flood of mockery”.

Berblinger crashed not only physical but socially as well. Whereas he had enjoyed a reputation good enough to be considered fit to gain the king´s favour for the city with his performance, he had lost it all within one day. His reputation in his home town was shattered. The father of four children most likely escaped from Ulm for a while at the time. This may be concluded from an advertisement placed by his wife, who tried to safeguard the family´s income by giving sewing lessons. Berblinger had lost his clientele and therefore his means of existence.

… and personal ruin.

A court report on February 15, 1812 discloses that he entered the Ulm-based Royal Cheveauleger Regiment No. 1 as regimental tailor. To uphold Ulm´s honour, it has to be stated that he received the letters of commendation needed for this position from several respected citizens. They confirmed even then that he was quite the professional and had a talent for inventing. That he was not wealthy was also clear from the letters. That, at least, most likely never changed. Berblinger´s continued misery can be deduced from various advertisements and official reports. He became a bum, pulled himself up to start over, tried his luck with a regiment again but finally made his mark in the records as a gambler and a drunk, a “civiliter mortuus”, a total failure. His wife Anna died of consumption in March 1820 at the age of 54. One more time Berblinger tried a come-back, advertising his services as tailor and paperhanger, even planning to hire apprentices. He remarried in 1822. He had two children with his Swiss-born second wife, however they died in infancy. Misery clung to him. When he had nowhere else to turn he moved in with his brother in the Hafengasse.

On January 28, 1825 Albrecht Ludwig Berblinger died of consumption in the Ulm hospital. He was 58 years old. The whereabouts of his grave are unknown. Oral folklore maintains that following his death, his flying machine was kept for several years in the attic of a house near the old pipes, close to the city´s public bath house.

Stadt Ulm German