Alberto Santos Dumont
(July 20, 1873 – July 23,
1932) was an early pioneer of aviation
was born in, and died in, Brazil. Heir of a prosperous coffee
producer family, Santos Dumont dedicated himself to science studies
Santos Dumont designed, built, and flew the first practical
. 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
Tower, made him one of the most famous people in the
world during the early 20th century.
In addition to his pioneering work in airships, Santos Dumont made
the first European public flight of an airplane
on October 23, 1906. Designated
or Oiseau de proie
(French for "bird of prey"), the flying machine was the first
fixed-wing aircraft officially witnessed to take off, fly, and
land. Santos Dumont is considered the "Father of Aviation" in his
country of birth, Brazil. His flight is the first to have been
certified by the Aéro Club de France
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)
Dumont was born in Cabangu Farm, a farm in the Brazilian town of
Palmira, today named Santos Dumont in the state of Minas Gerais. He grew up as the sixth of eight children on
a coffee plantation
owned by his family in the state of São
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."
He was fascinated by machinery, and while still a young child he
learned to drive the steam tractors
used on his family's
plantation. He was also a fan of Jules
and had read all his books before his tenth birthday. He
wrote in his autobiography
dream of flying came to him while contemplating the magnificent
skies of Brazil in the long, sunny afternoons at the
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 to sell the plantation and
move to Europe with his wife and younger children. At seventeen, Santos
Dumont left the prestigious Escola de Minas in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, for Paris in France.
after he arrived, he bought an automobile
. Later, he pursued studies in physics
, and electricity
with the help of a private
Balloons and dirigibles
Santos Dumont #6 rounding the Eiffel
Tower in the process of winning the Deutsch Prize.
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution (SI Neg.
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 (See Airship
Between 1898 and 1905, he built and flew 11 dirigibles
. With air traffic control
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.
Washington, just off Avenue des Champs-Élysées, not far from the Arc de Triomphe.
To win the Deutsch de la
Santos Dumont decided to build a bigger balloon,
the dirigible Number 5. On August 8, 1901 during one of his
attempts, his dirigible lost hydrogen gas. It started to descend
and was unable to clear the roof of the Trocadero Hotel. A large
explosion was then heard. Santos Dumont survived the explosion and
was left hanging in a basket from the side of the hotel. With the
help of the crowd he climbed to the roof without injury.
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.
winner of the prize needed to maintain an average ground speed of
at least 22 km/h (14 mph) to cover the round trip
distance of 11 km (6.8 miles) in the allotted time.
On October 19, 1901, after several attempts, Santos Dumont
succeeded in 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 vacillating by the committee of officials, Santos Dumont was
awarded the prize as well as the prize money of 125,000 francs
. In a charitable gesture, he donated 75,000
francs of the prize money to the poor of Paris. The balance was
given to his workmen as a bonus. An additional matching 125,000
francs was voted to him along with a gold medal by the government
of his native Brazil.
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
and royalty. In 1903 Aida D'Acosta
piloted Santos Dumont's airship. In 1904, he went to
the United States and was invited to the White House to meet U.S. 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 aircraft
The November 12 flight.
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 an airplane on October 23, 1906, when,
piloting the 14-bis
before a large crowd of
witnesses, he flew a distance of 60 metres (200 ft) at a
height of two to three metres (10 ft). This well-documented
event was the first flight verified by the Aéro-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
with a non-detachable
and under its own power 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 1906, to be awarded to the
first aviator to fly more than 25 meters.
On November 12, 1906, Santos Dumont succeeded in setting the first
world record recognized by the Aero-Club De France by flying
220 metres in less than 22 seconds.
Santos Dumont made other contributions to the field of aircraft
design. He added movable surfaces, the precursor to ailerons
, between the wings in an effort to gain
more lateral stability than was offered by the 14-bis
. 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 (Nos. 19 to
22). 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 on a tensionally-held seat between the main
wheels of a tricycle landing gear
. The Demoiselle
was controlled in flight partly by a
tail unit that functioned both as elevator and rudder
, and by wing
The Demoiselle airplane could be constructed in only 15 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. The June 1910 edition of the Popular Mechanics magazine
published drawings of the Demoiselle and affirmed that "This
machine is better than any other which has ever been built, 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.
The wristwatch had already been invented by Patek Philippe
, decades earlier, but Santos
Dumont played an important role in popularizing its use by men in
the early 20th century. Before him they were generally worn only by
women (as jewels), as men favoured pocket
In 1904, while celebrating his winning of the Deutsch Prize at
Maxim's Restaurant in [Paris], Santos Dumont complained to his
friend Louis Cartier
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
Santos Dumont never took off again without his personal Cartier
wristwatch, and he used it to check his personal record for a
220 m (730 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
, the last aircraft
that he built.
Santos Dumont bought one of the very early Le
cars, now on display at the São Paulo car museum.
Santos Dumont continued to build and fly airplane
. 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
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 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 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 1918 (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 the luxury
liner Cap Arcona
. Instead, the
seaplane crashed with the loss of all on board. The loss deepened
Santos Dumont's growing despondency.
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 in 1918
built a small house there filled with imaginative mechanical
gadgetry including an alcohol-fueled heated shower of his own
"A Encantada", the house of Santos
The hill was purposefully chosen because of its
great steepness as a proof that ingenuity could make it possible to
build a comfortable house in that unlikely site. After building it,
he used to spend his summers there to escape the heat in Rio, and
affectionately called it A Encantada
), after its street, Rua do Encanto
). The house has its stairs designed in
a curious way, each tread alternately hollowed in the right and
left, like an alternating tread stair: it allows that the stairs be
steep enough to fit the little room available in the house, but
still enable people to climb it comfortably.
Santos Dumont, a lifelong bachelor, did seem to have a particular
affection for a married Cuban-American woman named Aída de Acosta
. She is the only person, other
than himself, that he ever permitted to fly one of his airships. By
allowing her to fly his No. 9 airship she most likely became the
first woman to pilot a powered aircraft. Until the end of his life
he kept a picture of her on his desk alongside a vase of fresh
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 Petrópolis, Brazil is now a museum.
He never married or
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
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 city.
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. It was sold in 1896 to a British company, the
Dumont Coffee Company.
airport for domestic flights of Rio de
Janeiro is also named after him (see Santos
Dumont Regional Airport)
- The Rodovia Santos Dumont
is a highway in the state of São Paulo.
- The Brazilian Air Force (Command of Aeronautics) awards the
Santos Dumont Medal of Merit to important personalities in the
world of aviation. The state government of Minas Gerais has a
- The Réseau Santos Dumont is 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.
American Office of Naval
Research of San
Diego, California named one of its research airships as the 600B
- 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.
- The Lycée Polyvalent 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.
- He is mentioned as a pioneer of aviation, specifically in the
area of dirigibles, in the 1984 novel by Robert A. Heinlein entitled Job: A Comedy of Justice.
- The official Brazilian Presidential Aircraft, an Airbus Corporate Jet tail number FAB2101, was named
Alberto Santos Dumont.
- A popular Chilean rock band of the 1990s adopted the name
- A short story by H.G. Wells, "The Truth About Pyecraft",
includes a reference to Santos Dumont and his skill as an
- The aviator gives his name to a boutique Aircraft Management
and Consultancy Company, Santos Dumont, founded in May 2004
Alberto Santos Dumont footage starts
at 21 seconds in this 1945 newsreel on various firsts in human
- "M. Santos Dumont Rounds Eiffel Tower."
New York Times, October 20, 1901. Retrieved
January 12, 2009.
- Hansen 2005, p. 299.
- Les vols du 14bis relatés au fil des éditions du
journal l'illustration de 1906.The wording is: "cette prouesse
est le premier vol au monde homologué par
l'Aéro-Club de France et la toute jeune Fédération Aéronautique
- Santos-Dumont: Pionnier de l'aviation, dandy de la
- JInes. Ernest. "Santos Dumont in France 1906-1916: The Very
Earliest Early Birds." earlyaviators.com, December 25,
2006. Retrieved: August 17, 2009.
- "Aviation Pioneer Scored A First in Watch-Wearing."
Times, October 25, 1975. Retrieved: July 21, 2009.
- FESJ - Fundação
Educacional São José at www.fsd.edu.br
- Airship Santos Dumont to Conduct Test Phase at
- de Barros, Henrique Lins. Santos Dumont and the Invention of the Airplane
(PDF). Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Ministry of Science &
Technology and the Brazilian Centre for Research in Physics, 2006.
- de Mattos, Bento S. "Santos Dumont and the Dawn of Aviation."
AIAA paper # 2004-106, 42nd AIAA Aerospace Sciences
Meeting and Exhibit, Reno, Nevada, January 2004.
- de Mattos, Bento S. "Short History of Brazilian Aeronautics."
AIAA paper # 2006-328, 44th AIAA Aerospace Sciences
Meeting and Exhibit, Reno, Nevada, January 2006.
- Garrett, Charles Hall. "A Builder of Successful Air-Ships".
The World's Work: A History of Our Time, VIII, May 1904:
- Hansen, James R. First Man: The Life of Neil
Armstrong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. ISBN
- Hoffman, Paul. Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos Dumont and
the Invention of Flight. New York: Hyperion Press, 2003. ISBN
- Santos Dumont, Alberto. My Airships. New York: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1973 ISBN 0-486-22122-9.
- Waugaman, Elisabeth P., ed. Dê Asas aos Seus Sonhos /
Follow Your Dreams: The Story of Alberto Santos Dumont),
(bilingual, Portuguese/English). Rio de Janeiro: Prometheus Press,
2005. ISBN 85-99240-02-1.
- Winters, Nancy. Man Flies: The Story of Alberto
Santos-Dumont, Master of the Balloon. New York: Ecco Press,
1997. ISBN 0-88001-636-1.
- Wykeham, Peter. Santos Dumont:
A Study in Obsession. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World,
1962. ISBN 0-405-12210-1.