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Alberto Santos-Dumont

Alberto Santos-Dumont (July 20, 1873 - July 23, 1932) was a Brazilian aviation pioneer who made the first practical airship and made the first public demonstration of powered flight in a heavier than air aircraft.

Santos-Dumont in his trademark Panama hat.
From the archives of the Smithsonian Institution.

Santos-Dumont was born in the state of Minas Gerais, but grew up in a coffee plantation owned by his family in the state of São Paulo. He was fascinated by machinery and learned to drive the steam tractors and even the locomotive of the plantation train as a child. His father was an engineer and made extensive use of the latest labor-saving inventions in his vast property. Alberto was also a big fan of Jules Verne and had read all his books before his tenth birthday. He said in his autobiography that contemplating the magnificent skies of Brazil in the long, sunny afternoons at the plantation that made him first dream of flying in airships and flying machines.

In 1891, Alberto's father had an accident while inspecting some machinery. He fell from his horse and became a paraplegic. He decided then to sell the plantation and move to Europe with his wife and his youngest son. Alberto left the prestigious Escola de Minas in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, for the most exciting city in the world: Paris. At seventeen, Santos-Dumont had money and his interest in mechanics and machines and the first thing he did was to buy an automobile. Later, he found a tutor in physics, chemistry, mechanics and electricity and pursued these studies. He had a dream and an objective: to fly.

In 1898, Santos-Dumont went up in his first balloon. It was round and unusually small and he called it Brésil. Between 1898 and 1905 he build and flew 11 dirigibles. In 1905, he designed his first heavier-than-air craft and also a helicopter, which wasn't possible to build at the time. He had become a celebrity in Europe and had won several prizes and he was a friend to millionaires and royalty. In 1904, he came to the United States and was invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, who was very interested in the possible use of dirigibles in naval warfare. Santos-Dumont and the Wright brothers never met, even though they had heard of each other's work.

Santos-Dumont continued to work on dirigibles, but finally achieved his dream of flying in a heavier-than- air craft in October of 1906, when his 14 Bis flew a distance of 60 metres at a height of 2 to 3 metres. As far as the world believed, it was the first airplane flight ever and Santos-Dumont became a hero to the world press. The stories about the Wright brothers flights at Kitty Hawk and later near Dayton, Ohio, were not believed even in the US at the time.

Eventually, after much controversy, the Americans and the world - even though it remains a sore spot for Brazilians, to whom Santos-Dumont is known as the Father of Aviation - accepted that they had indeed flown a heavier-than-air craft before Santos-Dumont. Where he beat them, though, was in his idea of adding the first ailerons to the extremities of the wings. Aileron is the French diminutive for aile, or wing. Also, he never used any contraption or catapult or wooden tracks to push the aircraft or to aid take-off.

On October 19 1901, Santos-Dumont won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize of 100,000 francs for flying his dirigible number six from the Park Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back under thirty minutes. His victory was celebrated at Maxim's that evening, and at some point Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance. He wanted his friend to come up with an alternative that would permit him to keep both hands on the controls. Cartier went to work on the idea and the result was a watch with a leather band and a small buckle, to be worn on the wrist. Cartier invented the wristwatch for his friend in March of 1904. Santos-Dumont never took off again without his personal Cartier wristwatch and he used it to check his world record for a 220-metre flight, achieved in just twenty-one seconds, on November 12 1907. The new Santos watch was officially introduced on October 20 1979 at the Paris Air Museum next to the 1908 Demoiselle, the last aircraft Santos-Dumont built.

Santos-Dumont continued to build and fly airplanes until he fell ill in 1910, with what was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis.

When Santos-Dumont went back to Brazil in 1916, he bought a small lot on the side of a hill in the city of Petrópolis, in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro, and designed a small house full of tricks and imaginative details. It was a place of rest and calm for him.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, seriously ill and despondent, it is said, over the use of aircraft in warfare, committed suicide in the city of Guarujá in São Paulo on July 23 1932. His numerous and decisive contributions to aviation are his legacy to mankind.

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