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

Alberto Santos-Dumont (July 20, 1873 - July 23, 1932) was a Brazilian aviation pioneer. He built and flew many balloons and the first practical dirigible. His powered heavier-than-air-craft 14 Bis was demonstrated in Paris, with a public record-breaking flight, on October 1906.


Childhood in Brazil

Santos-Dumont was born in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, the youngest of 11 children. He grew up in a coffee plantation owned by his family in the state of São Paulo. His father was an engineer, and made extensive use of the latest labor-saving inventions in his vast property. So successful were these innovations that Santos-Dumont's father gathered a large fortune and became known as the "Coffee King of Brazil."

Santos-Dumont was fascinated by machinery, and while still a young child he learned to drive the steam tractors and locomotive used on his family's plantation. He was also a fan of Jules Verne and had read all his books before his tenth birthday. He wrote in his Brazil in the long, sunny afternoons at the plantation.

Move to France

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. At seventeen, Santos-Dumont left the prestigious School of Mines in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, for the city Paris in France. The first thing he did there was to buy an automobile. Later, he pursued studies in physics, chemistry, mechanics, and electricity, with the help of a private tutor.

Balloons and dirigibles

Santos-Dumont hired an experienced balloon pilot and took his first balloon rides as a passenger. Eventually he piloted them himself, and soon was designing his own balloons. In 1898, Santos_Dumont went up in his first balloon design, the Brésil. After numerous balloon flights, he turned to the design of steerable balloons or dirigible type balloons that could be propelled through the air rather than drifting along with the breeze. (See Airship)

Between 1898 and 1905 he built and flew 11 dirigibles. The zenith of his lighter-than-air career came on October 19, 1901 when he won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize of 100,000 francs for flying his dirigible Number 6 from the Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back under thirty minutes. In a charitable gesture, he donated half of the prize money to the poor of Paris. The other half was given to his workmen as a bonus.

Alberto's aviation feats made him a celebrity in Europe and throughout the world. He won several more prizes and became a friend to millionaires and royalty. In 1901 he was considered by many to be the most famous person in the world. In 1904, he went to the United States and was invited to the White House to meet US President Theodore Roosevelt.

Heavier than air

Although Santos-Dumont continued to work on dirigibles, his primary interest soon turned to heavier-than-air-craft. By 1905 he had finished his first airplane design, and also a helicopter. He finally achieved his dream of flying on an airplane in October 23 of 1906, when, piloting the 14 Bis before a large crowd of witnesses, he flew a distance of 60 metres (197 ft) at a height of 2_3 m. This well_documented event was the first flight verified by the Aero-Club De France of a powered heavier-than-air machine in Europe, and the first public demonstration in the world of an aircraft taking off from an ordinary airstrip with a non_detachable landing gear and on its own power (self-propelled) and in calm weather, officially resolving the problem of getting a machine that is "heavier than air" to take off the ground by its own means. With this accomplishment, he won the Archdeacon Prize founded by the Frenchman Ernest Archdeacon in July of 1906, to be awarded to the first aviator to fly more than 25 meters. On November 12 of the same year, Santos-Dumont succeeded in setting the first world record in aviation by flying 220 meters in less than 22 seconds. Both of these events occurred before the Wright Brothers had made any public flights (See "Disputed title" section below for more details.)

Santos_Dumont made numerous contributions to the field of aircraft control. The most noteworthy one was the use of effective ailerons at the tips of the wings. He also pushed for and exploited substantial improvements in engine power- to-weight ratio, and other refinements in aircraft construction techniques.

Disputed title

The history of early flying machines is still the ground disputes about definitions, facts, priorities, and merits. These polemics are often fueled by strong nationalistic or cultural feelings.

In Brazil and some other countries, Santos-Dumont is widely considered to be a "Father of Aviation", because of the official and of public character of the 14-bis flight and/or technical points such as the plane's integral landing gear and its ability to take off on open ground. This has been traditionally the official position of the Brazilian government, especially since the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship. Some admirers of Santos-Dumont go further and question the official history of other early flyers, such as the early Wright brother's earlier flights, claiming, for instance, that those exploits still have not been convincingly replicated with modern reconstructions of the Wright Flyers, that documents are inconclusive or unreliable, that witness reports are inconsistent, or even that some photos were forged [1] (http://www.thefirsttofly.hpg.ig.com.br/pioneer2.htm). A number of other early flying machines with less esteem are also, often disregarded as well.

There were many machines that got up into the air in a limited fashion and many variations heavier-then-air titles to which varying amounts of credit have been awarded by various groups. For example, in the former USSR Aleksandr Fyodorovich Mozhaiski is sometimes credited as a 'Father of Aviation', for his powered heavier_then_air machine going airborne (generally recognized as the second such flight in that category) in 1884.[[2] (http://www.flyingmachines.org/moz.html)] The disputes about the proper definition of "powered heavier than air flight" still go on. For example, with regard to gliders fitted with small engines that are used non_continuously; these debates do not extend to methods of take off systems. The issue of assisted takeoff can be a issue with early flights, however, since any help given is more significant for how long they were airborne for short flights.

Wright Brothers Scrapbook
Headline from page 8 of
the December 18, 1903 edition of
The Dayton Daily News.
From the archives of the Dayton Metro Library[3] (http://home.dayton.lib.oh.us/archives/wbcollection/wbscrapbooks1/WBScrapbooks10004a.html)
Article refers to Wright's flight's without
the "gas bag" assistance of Dumonts earlier Airships.

Much of the controversy with regard to Santos-Dumont vs. the Wrights arose from the difference in their approaches to publicity. Santos made his flights in public, often accompanied by a great deal of fanfare. In contrast, the Wrights were very concerned about protecting their intellectual property and made their early flights in remote locations and without recongnized officials present. In November 1905, the Aero Club of France learned of the Wrights flight of 24 miles. They send their correspondent to investigate and he corroborated the Wright’s accounts. In January 1906 The Aero Club of France's meeting is stunned by the reports of the Wright’s flights. Archdeacon sends a taunting letter to the Wrights, demanding that them to come to France and prove themselves. The Wrights do not respond. Thus, the larger world (of which Paris was the center at the time) witnessed the products of Santos' work first hand. As a result, many members of the scientific community as well as the public dismissed the Wrights as frauds (There were many aviation frauds being perpetrated at the time.) and held Santos-Dumont as the "first to fly."

Today, while there remains a high regard for Santos-Dumont's accomplishments, and a recognition of the 14-bis flight as a important event in early aviation, the honor of first effective heavier-than-air flight is most commonly assigned the Wright brothers for their flight of 38.9km (24.2mi) on Oct. 5 1905 with their Flyer III in the US.

In any case, early reports of the Wrights' activities and the disclosure of key design features in their 1904 European patent filings certainly helped many airplane developers in succeeding years, including Santos-Dumont. Moreover, Santos-Dumont's success was aided by improvements in engine power/weight ratio and other advances in materials and construction techniques that had taken place in previous years.

Just as some seek to broaden the accomplishments of the 14-bis flights, there are others who seek to narrow them, although this is less common. One criticism is that the low altitude at which the 14-bis flew permitted the lift to be augmented by ground effect. If so, then the argument is sometimes made that the craft was not a true heavier-then-air-craft flight. The often low flights of many aviation pioneers, including some of the Wrights initial flights, fall prey to a complex debate over classifications of machines that are aided by this phenomenon.

Also, there have been some questions of the Aero-Club De France's conflict of interest concerning their involvement with Dumont's claim. The questions largely arise from their knowledge of the Wrights, members being in competition with them, and their involvement with Dumont. How partial the Aero-Club De France was to Santos-Dumont is a matter of debate.

Santos-Dumont and the wristwatch

The wrist watch had already been invented by Patek Philippe, decades earlier, but Santos-Dumont played a important role popularizing its use by men in the early 1900s. Before him they were generally worn only by women, as men favored pocket watches. As a result, especially in Brazil, Santos-Dumont is considered by some to be the "Father of the Wristwatch".

The story goes that in 1904, while celebrating his winning of the Deutsch Prize at Maxim's Restaurant, Alberto complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance during flight. Alberto 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.

Santos-Dumont never took off again without his personal Cartier wristwatch, and he used it to check his personal record for a 220 m (722 ft) flight, achieved in twenty-one seconds, on November 12, 1907. The Santos-Dumont watch was officially displayed on October 20, 1979 at the Paris Air Museum next to the 1908 Demoiselle, the last aircraft that he built.

Back to Brazil

Santos-Dumont continued to build and fly airplanes until he fell ill in 1910, with what was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. He abruptly dismissed his staff and shut down his work shop. His illness soon led to depression. At one point, after being accused of being a German spy, he burned all of his papers, plans, and notes. Thus, there is little direct information available about his designs today, and not enough evidence to decide whether there was any truth to the accusation (which is not generally accepted).

In 1928 (some sources report, 1916) he left France to go back to his country of birth, never to return to Europe. His return to Brazil was marred by tragedy. A dozen members of the Brazilian scientific community boarded a seaplane with the intention of paying a flying welcome to the returning aviator on Cap Arcona. Instead, the seaplane crashed with the loss of all on board. The loss deepened Santos' growing dispondancy.

In Brazil, Santos bought a small lot on the side of a hill in the city of Petrópolis, in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro, and built there a small house filled with gadgets and imaginative details.

Death and beyond

Alberto Santos_Dumont — seriously ill, and said to be depressed over his multiple sclerosis and the use of aircraft in warfare — is believed to have committed suicide by hanging himself in the city of Guarujá in São Paulo, on July 23, 1932. Having never married, and having left no known children, his contributions to aviation remain his only legacy.

See also:

External links

  • Photograph of the 14-bis (http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Commercial_Aviation/france/Tran21G1.htm)
  • Centennial of flight Commission (http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Wright_Bros/1906/WR9.htm)
  • U. S. Centennial of Flight Commission Dumont (http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Dictionary/Santos-Dumont/DI41.htm)
  • Santos-Dumont and the Wright Bros (http://www.thefirsttofly.hpg.ig.com.br/pioneer2.htm) (against the Wrights-were-first claims)
  • First to Fly (http://www.first-to-fly.com/History/Wright%20Story/inventin.htm) and Santos Dumont (http://www.first-to-fly.com/History/History%20of%20Airplane/santos_dumont.htm) (Pro-Wright website)
  • Wright stuff or myth that grew wings?  (http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/12/14/1071336816574.html?from=storyrhs)

Further reading

  • Alberto Santos-Dumont My Airships Originally published in 1904. Reprinted 1973 by Dover Publications, Inc, New York ISBN 0486221229.
  • Nancy Winters Man Flies -- The Story of Alberto Santos-Dumont (1997) Ecco Press ISBN 0880016361
  • Peter Wykeham Santos-Dumont -- A Study in Obsession (1962) Harcourt, Brace & World ISBN 0405122101
  • Paul Hoffman Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight (2003) Hyperin Press ISBN 0786866594
  • Moura Visoni - Santos-Dumont and the Wright Brothers: End of the Century-Old Polemic (2003)



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