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Alberto Santos-Dumont (July 20, 1873 – July 23, 1932) was an important early pioneer of aviation. Although he was born, grew up, and died in Brazil, his contributions to aviation were made while he was living in France.
Santos-Dumont designed, built, and flew the first practical dirigible balloons (i.e. airships). 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 persons in the world during the early 1900s.
In addition to his pioneering work in airships, Santos-Dumont made the first public flight of an airplane in Europe, in Paris in October of 1906. That aircraft, designated 14 Bis or Oiseau de proie (French for "bird of prey"), is considered to be the first to take off, fly, and land without the use of catapults, high winds, launch rails, or other external assistance. Thus, most Brazilians consider him to be the "Father of Aviation" as well as the inventor of the airplane.
Much controversy persists around the many competing claims of early aviators.
Childhood in Brazil
Santos-Dumont was born in Cabengu, a village in the Brazilian town of Palmira (Today the place is Santos Dumont in the state of Minas Gerais.) He grew up as the youngest of eleven children on a coffee plantation owned by his family in the state of São Paulo. His French-born father was an engineer, and made extensive use of the latest labor-saving inventions on 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.
According to the custom of wealthy families of the time, after receiving basic instruction at home with private instructors (including his parents), young Alberto was sent out alone to larger cities to do his secondary studies. He studied for a while in "Colégio Culto à Ciência", in Campinas.
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 Escola de Minas 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 described himself as the first "sportsman of the air." He started flying by hiring an experienced balloon pilot and took his first balloon rides as a passenger. He quickly moved on to piloting balloons himself, and shortly thereafter to designing his own balloons. In 1898, Santos-Dumont flew 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. Between 1898 and 1905 he built and flew 11 dirigibles. With air traffic control restrictions still decades in the future, he would glide along Paris boulevards at rooftop level in one of his airships, commonly landing in front of a fashionable outdoor cafe for lunch. On one occasion he even flew an airship early one morning to his own apartment at No. 9, Rue Washington, just off Avenue des Champs-Élysées not far from the Arc de Triomphe.
The zenith of his lighter-than-air career came when he won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize. The challenge called for flying from the Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in less than thirty minutes. The winner of the prize would need to maintain an average ground speed of at least 22 km/hour (14 mph) to cover the round trip distance of 11 km (6.8 miles) in the allotted time.
After several attempts and trials, Santos-Dumont succeeded on October 19, 1901 using his dirigible Number 6. Immediately after the flight, a controversy broke out around a last minute rule change regarding the precise timing of the flight. There was much public outcry and comment in the press. Finally, after several days of vacilating by the committee of officials, Santos-Dumont was awarded the prize as well as the prize money of 100,000 francs. 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.
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 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. 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.
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) in calm weather, proving to the spectators that a machine "heavier than air" could take off from 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 flights to which the public was invited, although the Wright Brothers had made and photographed circular flights of more than half an hour with witnesses at a field next to a public roadway one year earlier near Dayton, Ohio.
The 14bis on its historic first flight.Santos-Dumont made numerous contributions to the field of aircraft control. The most noteworthy one was the use of effective ailerons at the outer wings. Although ailerons had been used in sailplanes before, Dumont pioneered their application for aircraft. He also pushed for and exploited substantial improvements in engine power-to-weight ratio, and other refinements in aircraft construction techniques.
Santos-Dumont’s final design was the Demoiselle monoplane. This aircraft was employed as Dumont’s personal transportation and he willingly let others make use of his design. The fuselage consisted of a specially reinforced bamboo boom, and the pilot sat beneath between the main wheels of a tricycle landing gear. The Demoiselle was controlled in flight partially by a tail unit that functioned both elevator and rudder and by wing warping.
The high-wing Demoiselle aircraft had a wingspan of 5.10 m and an overall length of 8 m. Its weight was little more than 110 kg with Santos-Dumont at the controls. The pilot was seated below the fuselage-wing junction, just behind the wheels, and commanded the tail surfaces using a steering wheel. The cables of sustentation of the wing were made of piano ropes. Initially, Santos-Dumont employed a liquid-cooled Dutheil & Chalmers engine with 20 hp. Later, the inventor repositioned the engine to a lower location, placing it in front of the pilot. Santos-Dumont also replaced the former 20-hp engine by a 24-hp Antoniette and carried out some wing reinforcements. This version received the designation No. 20. Due to structural problems and continuing lack of power Santos-Dumont introduced additional modifications in Demoiselle’s design: a triangular and shortened fuselage made of bamboo; the engine was moved back to its original position, in front of the wing; and increased wingspan. Santos-Dumont tested opposed-cylinder (he patented a solution for cooling this kind of engine) and cooled-water engines, with power settings ranging from 20 to 40 hp, in the two variants. An interesting feature of the water-cooled variant was the liquid-coolant pipeline which followed the wing lower side lofting to improve aerodynamics.
The Demoiselle airplane could be constructed in only fifteen days. Possessing outstanding performance, easily covering 200 m of ground during the initial flights and flying at speeds of more than 100 km/h, the Demoiselle was the last aircraft built by Santos-Dumont. He used to perform flights with the airplane in Paris and some small trips to nearby places. Flights were continued at various times through 1909, including the first cross-country flight with steps of about 8 km, from St. Cyr to Buc on September 13, returning the following day, and another on the 17th, of 18 km in 16 min. The Demoiselle that was fitted with two-cylinder engine became rather popular. The French WWI-ace Roland Garros flew it at the Belmont Park, New York, in 1910. The June 1910 edition of the Popular Mechanics magazine published drawings of the Demoiselle and affirmed that Santos-Dumont’s plane was better than any other that had been built to that date, for those who wish to reach results with the least possible expense and with a minimum of experimenting. American companies sold drawings and parts of Demoiselle for several years thereafter. Santos-Dumont was so enthusiastic about aviation that he released the drawings of Demoiselle for free, thinking that aviation would be the mainstream of a new prosperous era for mankind. Clément Bayard, an automotive maker, constructed several units of Demoiselles, which was sold for 50,000 Francs.
The design of Demoiselle clearly influenced that of the Blériot XI airplane, which was used for the British Channel crossing in 1909.
Controversy vis-a-vis Wright brothers
The claim to the first flying machine is still the arena for disputes about definitions, facts, and merits. These polemics are often fueled by strong nationalistic or cultural feelings.
In some countries, particularly Brazil, Santos-Dumont is considered to be the inventor of the airplane, because of the official and of public character of the 14-bis flight as well as some technical points. This has been traditionally the official position of the Brazilian government, especially since the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship. Vargas instituted a department within his government for "Information and Propaganda." This department created schoolbooks praising all things Brazilian; when the Vargas dictatorship ended in 1945, the department-influenced schoolbooks endured.
The strongest technical criticism of the Wrights’ early aircraft is that, while it is clear that these aircraft could sustain controlled flight, they always used some sort of assistance to become airborne. The assistance ranged in form from requiring a stiff headwind, the use of launch rails, and/or the use of external thrust (a catapult) to obtain the necessary airspeed for launch. 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.
In some other countries, particularly the United States, the honor of first effective heavier-than-air flight is most frequently assigned to the Wright brothers for their flight of 39 meters (120 feet) in 12 seconds on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Nonetheless, even in these nations there remains a high regard for Santos-Dumont’s accomplishments, and a recognition of the 14-bis flight as an important event in early aviation.
Supporters of the Wrights’ claim point out that the use of ground rails in particular was necessitated by the Wrights’ choice of airfields — the sand at Kitty Hawk and the rough pasture at Huffman prairie — rather than the relatively smooth and firm parkland available to Santos-Dumont and was not a reflection of any aerodyamic weakness in their design. Accordingly, the catapult used at Huffman Prairie allowed the use of a relatively short ground rail thus avoiding the time-consuming drudgery of positioning hundreds of feet of rail needed for launches without a catapult.
Supporters of the Wright Flyer claim also point out that 1) although a stiff head wind was required, the aircraft moved under its own power, unassisted by gravity; 2) the Wrights were the first to develop effective aircraft control, which made practical flight possible, even in breezy or windy conditions which are common, as well as in calm conditions. They introduced far superior control mechanisms well before all other winged aircraft, including Santos-Dumont’s 14-bis; 3) the Wright Brothers accurately described several principles of flight (including aerodynamics and propeller design) that previous pioneers had either described inaccurately or not at all; 4) the flight has been reproduced experimentally using a painstakingly recreated replica of the original aircraft.
It is this last point, the construction of replicas of the original Wright Flyer, that increased the controversy in recent years. Some of these replicas were modified using modern aerodynamic knowledge to improve their flight characteristics. However, at least one successful replica was built without being so modified. The Wright Experience, through painstaking research of original documents, photographs, and artifacts from the original Flyer (conducted much like an archaeological expedition), is believed to have accurately and precisely recreate it. This project had the stated purpose of building an exact replica of the original aircraft, whether or not it would actually fly. As it turned out, the aircraft did indeed make several successful flights.
Much of the controversy with regard to Santos-Dumont vs. the Wrights arose from the difference in their approaches to publicity. Santos-Dumont made his flights in public, often accompanied by a great deal of fanfare. In contrast, the Wright Brothers were very concerned about protecting their intellectual property and made their early flights in remote locations and without many international aviation officials present. The defense of their flight was also complicated by the jealousies of other American aviation enthusiasts and disputes over patents. In November 1905, the Aero Club of France learned of the Wrights’ alleged flight of 24 miles. They sent a correspondent to investigate the Wrights’ accounts. In January 1906, members in the Aero Club of France’s meeting were stunned by the reports of the Wrights’ flights. Archdeacon sent a taunting letter to the Wrights, demanding that they come to France and prove themselves, but the Wrights did not respond. Thus, the aviation world (of which Paris was the center at the time) witnessed the products of Santos-Dumont’s work first hand. As a result, many members, French and other Europeans, dismissed the Wrights as frauds (like many others at the time) and assigned Santos-Dumont the accolade of the "first to fly."
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.
There were many machines that got up into the air in a limited fashion and many variations of heavier-than-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-than-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 assisted takeoff can be an issue with early flights, however, since any help given is more significant for how long they were airborne for short flights.
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. 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 Santos-Dumont’s claim. The questions largely arise from their incomplete knowledge of the Wrights and their involvement with Santos-Dumont.
Santos-Dumont and the wristwatch
The wristwatch had already been invented by Patek Philippe, decades earlier, but Santos-Dumont played an 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, Brazilians consider Santos-Dumont the inventor of the wristwatch for men.
The story goes that in 1904, while celebrating his winning of the Deutsch Prize at Maxim’s Restaurant, 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.
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, 1906. 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.
Cartier today has a collection of wristwatches honouring Santos-Dumont called Santos de Cartier.
Santos-Dumont continued to build and fly airplanes. His final flight as a pilot was made in Demoiselle on January 4, 1910. The flight ended in an accident, but the cause was never completely clear. There were few observers and no reporters on the scene.
Santos-Dumont fell seriously ill a few months later. He experienced double vision and vertigo that made it impossible for him to drive, much less fly. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He abruptly dismissed his staff and closed his workshop. His illness soon led to a deepening depression.
In 1911, Santos-Dumont moved from Paris to the French seaside village of Bénerville where he took up astronomy as a hobby. Some of the local folk, who knew little of his great fame and exploits in Paris just a few years earlier, mistook his German-made telescope and unusual accent as signs (almost certainly false) that he was a German spy who was tracking French naval activity. These suspicions eventually led to Santos-Dumont having his rooms searched by the French military police. Upset by ignominy of the charge, as well as depressed from his illness, he burned all of his papers, plans, and notes. Thus, there is little direct information available about his designs today.
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-Dumont’s growing despondency.
In Brazil, Santos-Dumont bought a small lot on the side of a hill in the city of Petrópolis, in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro, and built a small house there filled with imaginative mechanical gadgetry.
Controversy regarding private life
Some controversy exists over Santos-Dumont’s private life, in particular his sexual orientation. Although he was an active member of the Paris social scene, there are no reports, public or private, of his having been romatically involved with anyone. This has led some to speculate that Santos-Dumont was a homosexual. However, historians have noted that any affair, with either a man or a woman, would have been impossible to keep a secret given Santos-Dumont’s notoriety in his time. This lack of any evidence of romantic entanglements have led some to speculate that he was asexual.
Historians have noted that both Wright brothers, around whom much controversy still exists vis-a-vis Santos-Dumont, also had personal lives apparently devoid of any overt sexual activity. However, no comparable suggestions of possible homosexuality have been made about them.
Santos-Dumond did seem to have a particular affection for a married Cuban/American woman named Aída de Acosta. He allowed her to fly his No. 9 airship (Thus she likely became the first woman to pilot a powered aircraft.) and he kept a picture of her on his desk until his death.
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. 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. He never married nor had any known children.
Santos-Dumont is a small lunar impact crater that lies in the northern end of the Montes Apenninus range at the eastern edge of the Mare Imbrium
The aviator gives his name to the city of Santos Dumont, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. In this municipality is located the Cabangu farm, where he was born. The Faculdades Santos Dumont is a group of private higher learning colleges in the same city.
The city of Dumont, in the state of São Paulo, near Ribeirão Preto is so named because it is located where it used to be one the largest coffee farms in the world, between 1870 and 1890. The farm was owned by Alberto Santos-Dumont’s father, a wealthy engineer of French descent. It was sold in 1896 to a British company, the Dumont Coffee Company.
The airport for domestic flights of Rio de Janeiro is also named after him (Santos Dumont Regional Airport)
The Rodovia Santos Dumont is a highway in the state of São Paulo.
The Brazilian Air Force (Command of Aeronautics) concedes to important personalities in the world of aviation the Santos Dumont Medal of Merit. The state government of Minas Gerais has a similar medal.
Réseau Santos-Dumont is the name of a cooperative university network between France and Brazil, instituted by the French and Brazilian Ministries of Education in 1994, with 26 universities in each country.
The American Office of Naval Research of San Diego, California has named one of its research airships as the 600B Santos Dumont.
The Historic and Cultural Institute of Aeronautics of Brazil has instituted the Santos Dumont Annual Prize of Journalism to the best reports in the media about aeronautics.
Santos-Dumont serves as the inspiration and namesake for a small Coffee and Ice Cream Shop in Milford, New Hampshire.
Lycée Polyvalente Santos-Dumont is a lyceum in Saint-Cloud, France;
Tens of thousands of streets, avenues, plazas, schools, monuments, etc., are dedicated to the national hero in Brazil.