Alberto Santos-Dumont – First in Flight

Alberto Santos-Dumont (July 20, 1873 – July 23,1932) was an early pioneer of aviation. He was born and died in Brazil. He spent most of his adult life in France. His contributions to aviation took place while he was living in Paris, France.

Santos-Dumont designed, built, and flew the first practical dirigible balloons. In doing so he became the first person to demonstrate that routine, controlled flight was possible. This “conquest of the air”, in particular winning the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize on October 19, 1901 on a flight that rounded the Eiffel Tower, made him one of the most famous people in the world during the early 20th century. In addition to his pioneering work in airships, Santos-Dumont made the first public European flight of an airplane in Paris on October 23, 1906. That aircraft, designated 14-bis or Oiseau de proie (French for “bird of prey”), is considered by Santos-Dumont supporters to be the first to take off, fly, and land without the use of catapults, high winds, launch rails, or other external assistance.

Fame & Controversy

Santos-Dumont’s aviation feats made him a celebrity in Europe and throughout the world. He won several more prizes and became a friend to millionaires, aviation pioneers, and royalty. In 1903 Aida D’Acosta Breckinridge piloted Santos Dumont’s airship. In 1904, he went to the United States and was invited to the White House to meet U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

The public eagerly followed his daring exploits. Parisians affectionately dubbed him le petit Santos. The fashionable folk of the day mimicked various aspects of his style of dress from his high collared shirts to singed Panama hat. He was, and remains to this day, a prominent folk hero in his native Brazil.

In Brazil, Santos-Dumont is considered to be the inventor of the airplane, because of the official and public character of the 14-bis flight as well as some technical points. This has traditionally been the official position of the Brazilian government.

The Wrights’ early aircraft could sustain controlled flight, but always used some sort of assistance to become airborne, requiring a stiff headwind, or the use of launch rails. As such, none of the Wrights’ early craft took off under their own power in calm wind from an ordinary ground surface as was achieved by the flights of the 14-bis.

Wristwatch

The wristwatch had already been invented by Patek Philippe, decades earlier, but Santos-Dumont played an important role in popularizing its use by men in the early 20th century. Before him they were generally worn only by women (as jewels), as men favoured pocket watches.

In 1904, while celebrating his winning of the Deutsch Prize at Maxim’s Restaurant in [Paris], Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance during flight. Santos-Dumont then asked Cartier to come up with an alternative that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls. Cartier went to work on the problem and the result was a watch with a leather band and a small buckle, to be worn on the wrist.

Cartier today has a collection of wristwatches honouring Santos-Dumont called Santos de Cartier. Publicity involved photographs of Santos-Dumont and his achievements.

Death

Alberto Santos-Dumont – seriously ill, and said to be depressed over his recently discovered multiple sclerosis as well as the use of aircraft in warfare – is believed to have committed suicide by hanging himself in the city of Guarujá in São Paulo, on 23 July 1932. He was buried in the Cemitério São João Batista in Rio de Janeiro. There are many monuments to his work, and his house in Petropolis, Brazil is now a museum. .

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2 thoughts on “Alberto Santos-Dumont – First in Flight

  1. Your article is very good and very well-written. Very good information. I was dumbfounded by the picture, because Santos looks EXACTLY (really, it’s almost scary!) like my deceased brother, Richard “Kermit” DuVal, 1946-1990. My brother was a professional supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera until his death in 1990.

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