Brodbeck, Jacob (1821–1910)

By: Martin Donell Kohout

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: February 28, 2018

Jacob Brodbeck, pioneer school supervisor and sometimes considered the first man to fly in an airplane, was born in the duchy of W├╝rttemberg on October 13, 1821. He attended a seminary in Esslingen and taught school for six years in W├╝rttemberg before sailing for Texas with his brother George on August 25, 1846. He reached Fredericksburg in March 1847, became the second teacher at the Vereins Kirche, where he replaced Johann Leyendecker, and later taught at the Grape Creek school and other Gillespie County schools. He became a United States citizen in 1852, and in 1858 he married Maria Christine Sophie Behrens, a former student at Grape Creek; they eventually had twelve children.

Brodbeck served as Gillespie county surveyor and district school supervisor in 1862 and was a county commissioner from 1876 to 1878. He is best remembered, however, for his attempts at powered flight almost forty years before the famous success of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Brodbeck had always had an interest in mechanics and inventing; in Germany he had attempted to build a self-winding clock, and in 1869 he designed an ice-making machine. His most cherished project, however, was his "air-ship," which he worked on for twenty years. In 1863 he built a small model with a rudder, wings, and a propeller powered by coiled springs. That year he also moved to San Antonio, where he became a school inspector. Encouraged by the success of his model at various local fairs, Brodbeck set about raising funds to build a full-sized version of his craft that would be capable of carrying a man. He persuaded a number of local men, including Dr. Ferdinand Herff of San Antonio, H. Guenther of New Braunfels and A. W. Engel of Cranes Mill, to buy shares in his project, promising to repay them within six months of selling the patent rights to his machine.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. One says that Brodbeck made his first flight in a field about three miles east of Luckenbach on September 20, 1865. His airship, which featured an enclosed space for the "aeronaut," a water propeller in case of accidental landings on water, a compass, and a barometer, and for which Brodbeck had predicted speeds between 30 and 100 miles per hour, was said to have risen twelve feet in the air and traveled about 100 feet before the springs unwound completely and the machine crashed to the ground. Another account, however, says that the initial flight took place in San Pedro Park, San Antonio, where a bust of Brodbeck was later placed. Yet another account reports that the flight took place in 1868, not 1865. All the accounts agree, however, that Brodbeck's airship was destroyed by its abrupt landing, although the inventor escaped serious injury.

After this setback, his investors refused to put up the money for a second attempt, so he embarked on a fund-raising tour of the United States. His papers were stolen in Michigan, however, and he failed to persuade his audiences to invest in his scheme. Brodbeck returned to Texas and lived on a ranch near Luckenbach until his death, on January 8, 1910, six years after the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk. No drawings or blueprints of Brodbeck's craft have survived, and his aviation achievements remain shrouded in doubt. He was buried on his farm near Luckenbach.

Roger Bilstein and Jay Miller, Aviation in Texas (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1985). Fredericksburg Standard, May 1, 1946, June 30, 1976. Kerrville Times, August 9, 1990. Anne Marie Lindig, "Gillespie County's Bird-Man," Junior Historian, March 1949.

  • Education
  • School Principals and Superintendents
  • Peoples
  • Germans

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Martin Donell Kohout, “Brodbeck, Jacob,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

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February 28, 2018