One of mankind’s oldest dreams came true on 10 August 1888: Wölfert’s motorised airship successfully completed the world’s first engine-driven flight with a combustion engine.

The flying machine belonging to the Leipzig-based bookseller Dr Friedrich Hermann Wölfert, powered by a single-cylinder Daimler engine, flew four kilometres from the factory yard of the Daimler Motor Company (Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft) at the Seelberg in Cannstatt to Kornwestheim. Thus Gottlieb Daimler’s vision of motorising vehicles on land, on water and in the air became reality.

At 9.00 a.m. on 10 August 1888, a new era of aeronautics began in the factory yard of the Daimler Motor Company (DMC) in Cannstatt: an airship slowly lifted up above the company premises and flew off with an audibly clattering four-stroke Daimler engine in a north-westerly direction. It was the first successful engine-driven flight in history with a combustion engine as a drive for the propeller.

Even if the single-cylinder Daimler engine was still too heavy to be used over long distances, the flight in 1888 proved the suitability of the fast-running combustion engine as an aircraft engine. Later, DMC equipped numerous Graf Zeppelin airships with engines – from the Z1 in 1900 to the LZ 130 in 1938 which flew with Mercedes-Benz diesel engines. The combustion engine also established itself as a drive for propeller-driven aeroplanes meaning that engines by Mercedes-Benz and the previous brands conquered the skies.

On that Friday morning in 1888, the airship designed by Dr Friedrich Hermann Wölfert landed after four kilometres on the Aldingen parade ground near Kornwestheim where it was welcomed by the amazed officers. Despite the short distance covered, the flight was a success for the book-selling aviation enthusiast. Wölfert, who was two metres tall and weighed around 100 kilogrammes, did not personally steer his airship from Cannstatt to Kornwestheim; it was in fact the 30-kilogramm-lighter Daimler employee, Gotthilf Wirsum, who took the helm. Two days later Wirsum steered the hydrogen-filled airship from Cannstatt on another four-kilometre flight.

The dream of flying
Friedrich Hermann Wölfert, born in 1850, began to dream of building an airship very early on. After studying Protestant theology in Leipzig, he founded his publishing house there in 1873. In 1880, he joined forces with forester Georg Baumgarten in order to be able to pursue his love of flying. His inventions include amongst other things a robust suspension for the airship gondolas using ropes which were guided through the envelope of the toughened balloon to its apex.

In that same year, Wölfert and Baumgarten built a 26-metre long airship with a cigar-shaped body in Dresden. Contemporaries found it very difficult to understand this visionary aircraft. The “Dresdener Anzeiger” newspaper was also amazed at “the sight of this monster of an airship and its individual parts which are hardly in proportion to one another”. Whilst the aviation pioneers made progress in the construction of the gas-filled envelope and the control system, they had no reliable source of power.

Baumgarten powered his airship models with amongst other things a spring mechanism motor. During a test flight in 1879, one such machine with a 12.5-meter long body proved itself both movable and steerable against the wind. However, the “clockwork” unit was hardly able to serve as a reliable motor over longer distances. The attempts of French engineers to use battery-electric motors in the “La France” airship in 1884 did not bring about a solution either: the unit comprising an energy storage unit and a motor was much too heavy for the airship.

Wölfert looked for a light, powerful drive system for the newest development stage of his airship – he looked at various electric motors and gas engines but none of the machines seemed suitable. Then Gottlieb Daimler contacted him and recommended that he use the fast-running four-stroke petrol engine that he and Maybach had developed as a source of power for the airship.

Daimler saw Wölfert’s airship project as an opportunity to finally realise his dream of motorising vehicles on land, on water and in the air. His engine was already working reliably in the “riding car” from 1885 (the first vehicle in the world with a combustion engine and a forerunner of the present-day motorcycle) and the world’s first four-wheel motor vehicle presented in 1886. Furthermore, there was also the “Marie”, a motor boat, the four-seater trolley car and a tram (all in 1887).

However, he also wanted the engine to conquer the skies in a flying machine. Initially Daimler recommended his single-cylinder engine, known as the “grandfather clock” due to its form, to an Augsburg-based airship designer and even the Prussian war ministry as a drive system for an aircraft – but in vain. He recognised a new opportunity in the late autumn of 1887, after reading an article about Wölfert’s airships. Daimler invited the bookseller to Cannstatt and agreed that they build an engine-driven airship.

The “grandfather clock” learns to fly
The 84-kg engine was fitted into the gondola of the airship which hung under the cigar-shaped body and was made of wooden slats and ropes. Using a control lever, the pilot was able to apply the engine’s power to both the vertical (for longitudinal propulsion) and horizontal propeller (for controlling altitude). The 2-hp (1.5 kW) engine drove the propellers at speeds of up to 720 revolutions per minute. The airship was steered using a large rudder at the bow of the gondola which, like the two propellers, was covered with fabric.

Following the two flights from the factory yard of the Daimler Motor Company, the airship started on a third flight from the Cannstatter Wasen fair grounds in September 1888. In 1889, Wölfert presented a new airship in Ulm which was also powered by a Daimler engine. In June 1897, Wölfert’s newest airship, the “Deutschland” caught fire on a flight in Berlin and crashed killing both the aviation pioneer and his co-pilot.

A true-to-original reconstruction of the gondola – including Gottlieb Daimler’s engine – on exhibit in the Mercedes-Benz Museum recalls Wölfert’s 1888 airship.

Technical data:
Wölfert’s motorised airship with a Daimler engine
Cylinders: 1
Displacement: 603 cubic centimetres
Output: 2 hp (1.5 kW) at 720 rpm

Source: Mercedes-Benz