While we all know about the Wright brothers, not many realize that the Croatian inventor David Schwarz also played a key role in of the development of the airplane. In 1897, six years before the take-off at Kitty Hawk, Schwarz created the first all-metal airship that, at least for a few miles, was able to fly.
Born in modern-day Hungary but spending most of his life in Zagreb, Schwarz was a Jewish timber merchant fascinated by technology. He developed improvements in woodcutting machinery before becoming obsessed in the 1880s with the possibility for mechanized flight far beyond the gas-powered balloons then in use. After intense self-education, Schwarz decided that the new material of aluminium could be used to build a self-directing airship.
Although many at the time mocked the idea of flying machines, Europe’s rulers were aware of their potential military importance. Schwarz initially looked for backing from the Austro-Hungarian ministry of war before securing interest from the Russian government. By 1893, he had designed and built his first airship. Revealing their respective obsessions, journalists thought it looked like a pencil, while military observers compared its shape with that of a bullet. However, his first “flight” in St Petersburg failed before it even began. The airship frame collapsed when the machine was filled with gas. Schwarz fled Russia in ignominy, while his financial partner, the industrialist Carl Berg, was so alarmed at cost overruns and other problems that he began to fear that Schwarz was a swindler.
However, in 1894, the German military contracted Schwarz to build another airship and provided army personnel and facilities to help. Even Emperor Wilhelm II was intrigued, visiting Schwarz’s Berlin hangar several times. Always worried about others stealing his ideas, Schwarz tried to keep the construction secret and only military people were on hand to witness the test flight on October 8, 1896. Gas problems meant that the airship got only a few meters off the ground. However, the propellers and engine worked well. The German general staff were cautiously optimistic while Schwarz was more convinced than ever that controlled, sustained flight was possible. In 1897, Schwarz had made his technical alterations and was almost ready to try again when he died suddenly. On hearing the news, Berg believed it was a ruse and that Schwarz had instead absconded to sell his secrets to the highest bidder. But Schwarz had indeed died before ever seeing his invention truly fly.
Schwarz’s widow Melanie and the entrepreneurial Berg worked with the German military to put the airship into the air. On November 13, 1897 at Tempelhof near Berlin, Schwarz’s airship with its 16-horsepower Daimler engine flew for several miles at a maximum height of 460 feet before crashing. The pilot escaped unharmed. According to some, the German general Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin acquired, through patent purchasing or pilfering, Schwarz’s designs and used them for the Zeppelin airship that began to fly three years later.
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that von Zeppelin, the Wright brothers, and the other famous names in aviation history were building, in their own way, on the work done by a now almost unknown inventor from Croatia.