Some people know the story of the Wright brothers. Even fewer know the story of Otto Lilienthal, who is credited with inventing the glider. But how is it possible that an uneducated Polish carpenter could invent an aircraft in the 1860s and have it lost in history? Such is the story of Jan Wnek, the man who changed history, but never wrote it down.
Over time, oral traditions about Wnek have made it difficult to distinguish the man from the myth. Historical records state that Wnek was born a poor peasant in 1828 along the Polish countryside. Stories say that even from a young age, Wnek was known to be a savant in carpentry, and was able to construct mechanisms far beyond his education. When he wasn’t improving the structures on farm equipment, he was a talented sculptor who worked for a local church constructing religious figures. His sculptures were well known for having ornate and beautiful wings, a foreshadowing of the work that would make Wnek famous. Many of these sculptures still stand today.
Sculptures by Wnek in the museum dedicated to him
Inspired by the wings of birds, Wnek believed humans could achieve flight by using some of the same mechanisms. He noticed that birds used rising air currents to gain height, and built wings for himself using the same principles. Wnek did not understand the complicated physics behind flight, but by copying the wings of a bird he eventually built a glider made of ash and linen that allowed him to make small controlled flights off of a hill. As his models improved over time, he built a ramp off of the top of the church to launch himself from.
Wnek became famous in his local area for his flights, and performed them during public holidays in front of an audience. But, Wnek’s passion would also be his demise, as he eventually crashed his glider and was killed in the accident.
The Jan Wnek museum in Poland
Wnek invented his glider almost 25 years before Lilienthal would be credited with inventing the first. His achievements were revolutionary. Unfortunately, they weren’t influential. Wnek’s only fame ever came from his local region of Poland, and most of his achievements died with him. Although many church records, death records, eyewitnesses, and oral traditions prove the validity of Wnek’s glider, the design was never recorded.
A model of what Wnek’s glider likely looked like
The story of the poor and uneducated man who dreamed that he could fly has been passed down with the Polish people for centuries. Unfortunately, the plans for Wnek’s glider have never been discovered, and he will forever live in obscurity. Like the myth of Icarus, Wnek flew too close to the sun.