By Mark Taylor
Ask a North American or European who Santos-Dumont is and you’re likely to get the response of who?”. Ask a Brazilian who the Wright Brothers are and you’re likely to get the same response. A line from George Orwell’s 1984 seems rather apt at this point, that is: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”. Although who is doing the controlling is an interesting question, more on that later.
Santos-Dumont, for those who don’t know, that is Alberto Santos-Dumont was one of the pioneer aviators. He was born in Cabangu, a village in Minas Gerais, in 1873 (Cabangu has since been renamed Santos-Dumont, as has Rio de Janeiro’s airport, and typically a street in every town and city across Brazil). He grew up on a coffee plantation owned by his family, in the state of São Paulo. His French father was already an Engineer, and used many of the latest “labour saving” inventions on his plantation, which earned him the nickname “Coffee King of Brazil” due to the productivity increase.
It was his father’s love of machines that seems to have inspired Alberto, who spent his growing years surrounded by them. He also had a growing imagination, and would love to read the books of Jules Verne, reading them all before he was ten. It was, according to his autobiography, that the dream of flying came to him while staring into the skies of Brazil on long sunny afternoons.
Unfortunately in 1891 his father had an accident, a fall from a horse while inspecting machinery at the plantation, the injuries from which caused him to become a paraplegic. As was the custom of the time Alberto had been schooled by private tutors until he was of age to study in a prestigious school in one of various cities. He had already studied in Campinas, and at the time of his father’s accident he was studying in Ouro Preto. The accident changed everything though, and his father sold the plantation and moved back to France, taking his wife and Alberto (at the age of 17) with him.
Alberto continued his studies, but his thoughts moved back to the sky and he found himself caught up in the flying revolution taking place in France in the late 19th century. At this time the future of flight was the balloon, and he wasted no time learning to pilot and design them. He designed and flew his first balloon, named the Brsil, at the age of 25. Then he spent the next 7 years designing and flying eleven more balloons. Part of this pursuit was to win the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize, provided by Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe, a wealthy oil baron. To win the prize of 100,000 Francs, the challenge had been set for someone to fly the 11km (7 miles) between the headquarters of the Aero Club of France and the Eiffel Tower.
Alberto tried, and tried again, to win the prize. In one of his first two attempts the Hydrogen filled balloon hit a hotel and exploded, and he miraculously survived, hanging in the basket from the side of the hotel. The watching crowd helped him to the roof, and he managed to escape without injury. In his third attempt he succeeded though, and on October 19th 1901 he not only flew from the headquarters to the Eiffel Tower, he circled around and flew back. Despite an outcry about last minute rule changes he was awarded the prize, thanks to his rather unimaginatively named “Number 6” balloon. Alberto’s generous nature though was to donate half the prize to the poor, and the other half to those workers who had helped him construct the balloon.
Alberto became famous with his exploits, and his celebrity status ensured he was much in demand. In 1904 he went to the USA and met with the President of the time, Theodore Roosevelt. The French nicknamed the rather diminutively statured Alberto as “Le Petit Santos”, and even mimicked his unusual clothing choice: high collared shirts, and a Panama hat.
Following his success with many balloons though he turned his attention and imagination to heavier-than-air craft. In 1905 he designed not only an airplane, but also a helicopter. Although 1906 was the year when the airplane design became a reality, in the shape of the again rather unimaginatively named “14 Bis” (meaning “14 Again”, as he had already named a balloon “Number 14”). It was with the 14 Bis that Alberto achieved flight, on October 23rd. The plane flew a total distance of 60m (200ft) at a maximum height of 3m (10ft), and was the first flight verified by the Aero-Club of France. The flight was well attended and documented as it included the press, so both photos and a film were taken. The flight also included an unassisted take-off, that is no need for rails or a catapault, something that would prove to be a bone of contention later.
Part 2 next week…
If you have a comment on Mark’s article or would simply like to contact him then email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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