Saturday, August 6, 2011

Who Invented the Airplane?

Ask any Brazilian, and you'll be told that this guy did. Alberto Santos-Dumont.was the sixth of eight children, born to a wealthy coffee planter in the state of São Paulo. And, although there is still debate as to whether the Wright Brothers or Santos Dumont should be credited with designing the first heavier-than-air craft, all the experts agree that Alberto designed, built, and flew the first practical dirigibles.  In so doing, became the first person to demonstrate that controlled and routine flight was possible.  And what a routine his was!

In those days, before air traffic control, Santos Dumont used to putter around Paris in his contraptions, gliding along the boulevards at rooftop level and mooring them to convenient hitching posts while he dined, or enjoyed coffee on a terrace, or attended polo matches in the Bois de Boulogne.

On October 19, 1901 a flight he made around the Eiffel Tower emerged in a photograph. That image catapulted him into international prominence.  Young men of fashion began adopting his high collars and the singed Panama hats of which he was so fond. 

Caricatures of him began appearing in magazines throughout the world.

On one occasion he allowed an American lady, Aida de Acosta, to fly his Airship Number Nine while he pedaled along below, on a bicycle, calling out instructions. That was in 1904, six months before the Wright Brothers first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. Aida’s exploit, a round-trip flight between a polo match at Bagatelle and Neuilly St. James lasted one-and-a-half hours. She later recalled that Santos-Dumont enthusiastically called her “la première aero-chauffeuse du monde!" ("the first woman aero-driver in the world!"). 

Her parents were less ecstatic. In fact, they were downright appalled. Aida was only twenty at the time, and they were certain no man would consider marrying a woman who’d done any such thing. They did everything they could to hush it up.

In 1904, during a dinner at Maxim's Restaurant, Santos Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch while in flight. He needed, he said, an alternative that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls.

Cartier’s solution was a watch with a leather band, and a small buckle, to be worn on the wrist.  Cartier later expanded the line, still produces it, and you can buy a simple one for as little as seven or eight thousand dollars. It’s still called the Santos Dumont.

But was Alberto Santos Dumont really the man who invented the airplane? Well, that comes down to how you define an airplane.  If you define it as “a powered heavier-than-air machine taking off from an ordinary airstrip with a non-detachable landing gear and under its own power” then he undoubtedly was.

The Wright Brothers flew their early contraption farther, longer, and sooner. But the Flyer, as they called it, had to be launched with a catapult.

Santos Dumont’s 14 Bis, didn’t require one. And his was the first aircraft that fulfilled all of the above specifications. In 1918, (some sources report 1916) Santos Dumont returned to Brazil where he remained for the rest of his life.

In July of 1932, a constitutional revolution broke out and the federal government moved to surpress it. Santos Dumont was reputed to have seen a flight of bombers flying over his home in the seaside resort of Guarujá.

Driven into despair about the destructive use to which aviation was being put, and feeling guilty about his role as a pioneer of flight, he committed suicide by hanging himself.

He never married.

But, at the time of his death, a framed photo of Aida was found on his desk – beside a vase of flowers.
Posted by Leighton Gage


Jean Henry Mead said...

Fascinating history, Leighton!

Ben Small said...

Yes, it is. I really enjoy Leighton's posts. Thank you, Leighton!

Leighton Gage said...

Ben and Jean,

Thanks, folks.
I'm glad you enjoyed it.
On a personal note, Santos Dumont's great niece, Maria Helena, is a friend of mine.

Matter of fact, I dedicated my first book to her.