The Ulm Tailor
„The Ulm Tailor attempted to fly on a whim, but the devil lead him into the Danube to swim“
This is the most popular rhyme mocking the man whose plain name was Albrecht Ludwig Berblinger. When dealing with him we discover a schizophrenic attitude unique to Ulm: As Tailor of Ulm he is a figure of local folklore. As such he was never treated as a hero of aviation but rather considered to be a burn-out, a crackpot and comic figure.
Today however the inventor and design engineer Albrecht Ludwig Berblinger is rehabilitated. The Ulm Science City offers an award every two years since 1988 to commemorate the man who made aviation history with the first glide through the air. The „Berblinger Award“ is designed to motivate the world’s airplane constructors to channel their creativity toward the improvement of safety, ecological compatibility, aero dynamics, design and economics.Who was this man, Albrecht Ludwig Berblinger? He was a tailor by trade but not by calling. He was born as seventh child to his parents on June 24th 1770. His father died when Albrecht Ludwig was 13 years old. The boy was sent to an orphanage. It was the foster father who had the idea to apprentice him to a tailor. Berblinger himself felt no such desire. He tended much more toward mechanics.
Even if tailoring was not his intended profession, he became quite successful at it nevertheless: At the tender age of 21 he made his master, four years ahead of the traditional age.
He proved his talent for invention by literally putting the invalid Elias Schlumperger back on his feet. This city soldier had lost his foot to an exploding mortar in July 1807 when Ulm celebrated Napoleon’s victory at the battle of Friedland. Back then the usual replacement was not much more than a wooden stilt. Berblinger however designed and built an „artificial foot machine“ for Schlumperger, which not only looked like an actual leg but – ancestor to today’s artificial limbs – possessed movable joints.Ulm being part of Bavaria from 1802 – 1810, Berblinger turned to the King of Bavaria to have his invention authorized and announced to the whole country. In those times of war, when thousands of soldiers were turned into cripples, this authorization would have meant a huge increase of income to the already well to do master-tailor. But his Majesty the King declined without giving a reason.
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 with the support 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. If it is merely a revised copy of Degen’s flying machine or if 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 laughingstock 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.
Based on those experiences Berblinger must have calculated the height of his starting point. He had a scaffold of 7 meters erected on top of the „Eagle Bastion“ which itself rose a straight 12 meters above the Danube. This gave him a total of 19 meters above the river to start from. The distance to the island was 54 meters, to the opposite bank 64 meters.But as the moment to jump was upon him he became insecure, tested the already harnessed machine „ Instead of flying he was seen to merely dance about“. Then he announced „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 Louisdor 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“.
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 – the king had departed – this time in front of the king’s brother who is reputed to have had less empathy toward Berblinger’s renewed reluctance.
The wings may have been repaired: but contrary to the test-grounds 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 – as has also been said – he was pushed by a police man: Berblinger plummeted into the river like a rock and had to be rescued by boatmen.
Reactions were quite merciless and not only by the Ulm bourgeois who had always known that man is not made to fly. Even those who were open toward progress articulated 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“. They added on to this: „He is scourged with a flood of mockery“.
Berblinger’s crash was not only physical but social as well. While 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 hometown 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. She tried to safeguard the family’s income by giving sewing lessons.
Berblinger had lost his clientele and therefore his means of existence.
A court report on February 15th 1812 discloses that he entered the Ulm-based Royal Cheveauleger-Regiment No.1 as regiment 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 did confirm even then, that he was quite the professional and had a talent of inventing. That he was not wealthy was also clear from the letters.
That at least has most likely never changed. Berblinger’s ongoing 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, advertised his services as tailor and paperhanger, even planned 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 28th 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 his flying machine was kept for several years more in the attic of a house near the old pipes, close to the city’s public bath house.
But poets and philosophers were never again quite free of Berblinger. If in the beginning there were only the authors of mockery rhymes they were joined over time by others who took to the tragedy of the case. Engineer and author Max Eyth finally laid a foundation to Berblinger’s memorial with his two-volume novel „The Ulm Tailor“ in 1906. The under title reads: „ The story of a man born 200 years ahead of his time“. After rehabilitation through countless writers of all persuasions, poets, composers and eventually film producers the aviators followed suit. After his machine’s fitness had been proved in individual instances, Berblinger experienced his greatest aeronautical justification in 1986: To commemorate the 175 year anniversary of the legendary date the city of Ulm organized a Berblinger-flying-competition at the very same historical spot. In spite of the well-known thermal problems at this spot one of the contestants succeeded in gliding across the Danube. These finally and conclusively vindicated the Tailor’s reputation albeit decisively too late for him.