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 aircraft 14-bis was demonstrated in Paris, with a public record-breaking flight, on October 1906.
Santos-Dumont in his trademark Panama hat.
From the archives of the Smithsonian Institution.
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 autobiography that the dream of flying came to him while contemplating the magnificent skies of 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 baloon 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 aircraft. 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 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 and in calm weather.
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.
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. 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 limted 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 somtimes 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. 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 assited 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.
Headline from page 8 of
the December 18, 1903 edition of
The Dayton Daily News.
From the archives of the Dayton Metro Library
Article refers to Wright's flight's without
the "gas bag" assistance of Dumonts earlier Airships.While there is 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. 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 aircraft 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's been some questions of the Aero-Club De Frances conflict of interest in there involvement with Dumont's claim. The questions largely arising from their knowledge of the Wrights, members being in competition with them, and there involvement with Dumont. How partial the Aero-Club De France was to Santos-Dumont is a matter of debate.
Santos-Dumont and the wristwatch
Santos-Dumont is also 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. The wrist watch had already been invented by Patek Philippe, decades earlier, but Santos-Dumont played a important role popularizing its use by men: before him it was generally worn only by women, as men favored pocket watches.
Santos-Dumont never took off again without his personal Cartier wristwatch, and he used it to check his record for a 220 m (722 ft) flight, achieved in just 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 1916 (some sources report, 1928) he left France to go back to his country of birth, never to return to Europe. In Brazil, he 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 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.