The designer and pilot of the first truly dirigible balloon and the first airplane in Europe.
Alberto Santos-Dumont was born in an outlying district in Brazil in 1873, the seventh and last child of a civil engineer and his wife, who soon afterward became the nation’s most wealthy coffee plantation owners. The death of his father in 1892 left Santos-Dumont financially secure, allowing him to pursue an eclectic scientific and technical education in Paris while indulging his passion for automobiles. After reading a book about a famous aerial expedition to the North Pole that had ended in tragedy, the mechanically gifted young man turned his attention to ballooning. Seeking out the book’s authors, two Parisian balloon manufacturers, he persuaded them to build a small vehicle to his specifications, and he rapidly became expert in handling free spherical balloons. By 1898, however, he was experimenting with powered lighter-than-air craft, building, testing, and often crashing successively more sophisticated models that were designed to be far more maneuverable than Henri Giffard’s steam-powered dirigible of almost a half-century earlier. For nearly fifty years, advances in dirigible technology had been nonexistent. Santos-Dumont became single-minded in his desire to overcome all obstacles, using his financial resources, assembling a talented group of mechanics, and taking upon himself all the physical risks involved with testing his concepts.
In April, 1900, the financier Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe announced a prize of 100,000 francs to go to the first person who could navigate an aerial trip from the Parc d’Aérostation of the Aéro Club de France in St. Cloud, near Paris around the Eiffel Tower and back to the Parc d’Aérostation in less than thirty minutes without landing, a feat which would require an average speed of 14 miles per hour. Santos-Dumont alone was in a position to accept the challenge. On July 13, 1901, his airship number 5 flew the circuit in forty minutes before sinking into a tree. Two weeks later, the repaired vehicle met a similar fate in an encounter with a hotel facade. On October 19, 1901, a new airship, 33 meters in length and equipped with a 20-horsepower engine, completed the task in a few seconds over the stipulated time, but was fast enough to garner the prize.
Santos-Dumont was already a familiar, if solitary, figure in Paris, a fastidious dresser whose somber visage, slight frame and nerves of steel augmented his status as premier conqueror of the air. His mastery of powered ballooning had gained him international fame, and during a visit to the United States in 1902, he was sought out by Thomas Edison and Samuel P. Langley.
Over the next few years, Santos-Dumont continued to design new airships, building his own station for them at Neuilly St. James. In 1904, however, he became interested in heavier-than-air flight. The following year, he teamed up with Gabriel Voisin to build an ungainly looking “canard-type” airplane, with a rectangular, fabric-covered fuselage and tail unit forward of the main wing with its propeller in the rear. Its wings, which resembled large box kites, were attached at a pronounced dihedral angle, providing lateral stability. A 50-horsepower engine propelled the craft through the air. Attached to the leading end of the fuselage was a small boxlike device that pivoted both vertically and horizontally, the sole means of control during flight. The pilot stood in a wicker basket directly in front of the engine. On October 23, 1906, the craft flew for a distance of some 60 meters, the first successful European airplane flight. On November 12 of the same year, it flew 220 meters, managing to stay aloft for more than 20 seconds.
To a Europe that knew nothing of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s triumph at Kitty Hawk three years earlier, Santos-Dumont’s new accomplishment was heralded as another technological first, rivaling his previous feat in controlled aerial navigation in 1901. Soon, former associates such as Henri Farman and Louis Blériot were breaking Santos-Dumont’s records, but only Wilbur Wright’s flying exhibitions in a biplane during a 1908 visit to France finally disabused objective observers of Santos-Dumont’s claim to the first flight. Yet the Brazilian aeronaut continued to contribute to the airplane’s evolution: His lightweight Demoiselle (dragonfly), first tested in 1909, could attain a speed of 70 miles per hour and was easy to control.
In 1910, Santos-Dumont suddenly gave up designing and flying and sold his entire fleet of vehicles. In March of that year, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and its inevitable sentence of gradual physical debilitation often tempted him to despair. His dark moods were further exacerbated during World War I by a sense of responsibility for the deaths caused by aerial warfare. He lectured on three continents about the use of aircraft in peace and war, often sounding a distinctly pacifist note.
The last two decades of Santos-Dumont’s life offer few milestones beyond the occasional honors bestowed on him—particularly by the country of Brazil, which idolized him as its most famous citizen—for his pioneering work and a chronicle of rootless travel between Europe and South America. His efforts at invention, notably with proposed ornithopters, were only parodies of his former audacious triumphs, and he gradually receded from public view. Even a planned festive trip to Brazil in 1928 ended in disaster when a seaplane sent out to greet his arriving ocean liner plunged into the sea in front of his eyes, killing all passengers, among whom were many of the nation’s leading intellectuals.
In 1931, Santos-Dumont returned permanently to Brazil, but the country’s descent into civil war hastened his physical and mental decline. On July 23, 1932, after witnessing an aerial bombing raid carried out by government forces against fellow Brazilians, he took his own life.
Page, Joseph A. “Brazil’s Daredevil of the Air.” Americas 45, no. 2 (March/April, 1993). A profile of Santos-Dumont, his career in early aviation, his aircraft designs, and his education. Santos-Dumont, Alberto. My Airships: The Story of My Life. 1904. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1973. An unabridged republication of the English translation originally published in 1904 by Grant Richards in London of the inventor’s own Dans l’air, an ebullient account of Santos-Dumont’s exploits, written at the height of his popularity. Wykeham, Peter. Santos-Dumont: A Study in Obsession. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963. A superbly written biography that situates Santos-Dumont within Paris’s belle époque.
History of human flight