Sunday, March 21, 2010

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.

Leighton - Monday


  1. There are two theories in history about invention. One refers to the development of something like the water-wheel. At some point in a culture's development, innovation, the need to do things better, faster, more efficiently, drives groups to develop the means by which they can fulfill their needs. It doesn't happen at the same time across cultures; it doesn't happen because someone saw a better method and borrowed it. It happens because the culture has reached the point where someone realizes that using flowing water to make a wheel turn in order that grain be ground more efficiently is better for the group than women working with a mortar and pestle or a horse

    The other theory addresses simultaneous invention. This theory is based on the notion that every invention grows from the work, experiments and published writings of others. The inventor takes it a few steps further and creates something better, something more efficient,something more exciting.

    Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone but, to be accurate, he was the first to patent the telephone. Elisha Gray, a professor at Oberlin College, filed a caveat, the announcement of an invention, on the same day as Bell applied to the US Patent office for protection of his invention. Bell got to the patent office before Gray did so Bell got the patent and the credit.

    In fact, an Italian immigrant filed a caveat for his talking instrument five years before Gray did. He lost being credited for the invention because he didn't have the money to renew the caveat.

    So, in 1876, the telephone was simultaneously invented.

    I did not know that the Wright brothers' plane had to be launched by a catapult. That detail gives Santos Dumont the award for inventing the airplane.

    It is ironic that Santos Dumont's request led to Cartier designing the wrist watch. Air travel, one of the most important developments in history, is affordable to the average person. A Cartier watch is not.

    Santos Dumont's response to the use of his invention reminded me of Nobel's dismay when he realized that governments had found a different purpose for dynamite. Santos Dumont committed suicide in despair after seeing his invention used as an instrument of death and destruction. It is well known that Nobel established the prizes after he realized that his invention was being used, like Santos Dumont's, as an instrument of war. An article in Wikipedia offers the information that Nobel's brother died in France and newspapers assumed it was Alfred. An obituary stated, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died...." The article described him as a merchant of death. Nobel believed he had an obligation to re-frame his legacy so he left the bulk of his fortune to the establishment of the prizes, to be given to those who have done something to improve lives.

    Nobel, like Santos Dumont, did not marry.


  2. Aha! An area for disagreement. First, I think the important issue about the inventor of the airplane (aeroplane) is that the invention has to generate its own lift and be powered (so a glider doesn't count). Any type of device where the lift is generated by hot air or helium or whatever should not be counted. Of course the Wright brothers are generally regarded as making the first powered flight.

    But many people think the first powered flight was made by Richard Pearse on March 31, 1902.

    He was a shy New Zealander, whose exploits evaded public notice until nearly 6 years later. His airplanes were sophisticated in some ways - tricycle landing gear, for example - and some of his early flights included turns, which was amazing at the time. He also designed and built his own engine, if I remember correctly.

  3. Either way I like the Cartier watch!

  4. Hi Leighton,

    Great story and as always, I love the photos.


  5. One important thing you guys forgot to mention was that Santos Dumont donated all the money from all the prizes he won to his faithful mechanics. He also, in a grand and magnanimous gesture, offered all of his engineering plans to the public free of charge.

    Unlike the Wright's bros, that since 2003 were trying to sell the airplane patent to the American and French governments, with no success, since they could not create a practical flying machine untill 2010, after their travel to France... Got that?

    Santos Dumont was an idealist, aviation passionate, and never requested a patent for his machines, giving for nothing all the plans for 14-Bis and Demoiselle construction to anybody who requested them, including the Wrights bros...

    1. The Wright brothers were not alive in 2003. Get your facts straight.

  6. Hi David,
    Thanks for your contribution.
    Yes, I got it.
    But, no, I didn't FORGET to mention Santos Dumont's altruism.
    I simply chose not to.

    But it's only fair to add this:
    The Wright Brothers were poor kids, lower-middle class, and on the make. They were driven by the spirit of capitalism.

    Santos Dumont was from a family that had hectares and hectares planted with coffee. They were so wealthy that they needed their own private railroad to get around the fazenda.
    It was through playing, as a boy, with the engines of that railroad that Santos Dumont developed his interest in things mechanical. Later, when he moved on to "flying machines", he was driven purely by curiosity and adventure. Money never came into it. Because money meant nothing to him.
    Had he been born poor, however, it might have been a different matter.

  7. I am glad that finally there is a constructive comments on the legacy of Santos Dumont. As a Brazilian, I feel that the time to recognize Santos Dumont is there.

  8. Santos-Dumont was murdered, just like Alan Turing and Nikola Tesla.

  9. Anonymous (post of July 6th).
    I have no idea about Turing and Tesla, but I think you're wrong as far as Santos-Dumont was concerned.
    I know members of the family.
    And they assure me his death was a suicide.
    I would be curious to know where you got information to the contrary.

  10. @Leighton Gage.
    "...his mysterious death in circumstances that I don't want to give away." - John Thorpe

    "Nikola Tesla Was Murdered by Otto Skorzeny?" - Sir Vojislav Milosevic

    "The Murder of Alan Turing" - Ole Thomassen Hjortland

  11. Thank you, Anonymous (July 20) for those links.
    I've always considered Skorzeny to be a despicable character. (Remember that Gran Sasso Raid where he rescued Mussolini and sacrificed all of his men to do it?) And then the fact that he was such a buddy of Hitler's. So I'm inclined to believe anything of him.
    But not that he worked as a carpenter in the United States. In fact, he did all sorts of stuff in all sorts of places, even served as the bodyguard of Eva Peron and worked for the both the Mossad and the Egyptian government. He was "denazified" in the early fifties and died in Madrid. Gehlen, of course, was the guy who ran the Gehlen Organization, and was a spymaster, not a thug. I find it harder to believe he had anything to do with the death of Tesla.
    The Turing link, unfortunately, is inconclusive because the New Yorker's site can't seem to find the article.
    As to Santos-Dumont, nothing that Hoffman might say leads me to believe that the family's account of his death (suicide by hanging) is not the true one. Who is this fellow Thorpe anyway? Was he in Guaruja at the time? And why would anyone want to kill SD anyway?
    Anything is possible, I suppose, but I have yet to see any evidence that supports a conspiracy.
    And why would the family lie?

  12. @Leighton Gage.

    You are right. Nobody was ever murdered. Neither SD, Tesla, nor Turing. Because, the official version of the history is the right one -- no way to wonder or question about it. Just like General George S. Patton, who also accidentally died in a car-truck crash. Although, some may think differently.

  13. eu acredito que considerar os irmão wright como inventores do avião é uma grande injustiça. A ciencia prova que os motores eram muito fracos para manter os flyers no ar. Tinham motores de 12, 15 e 20 hps e precisavam de 70 a 140 hps. se com tão pouca força jamais decolariam e muito menos se sustentariam no ar, como foram voar??? Tambem é bom lembrar que os motores que eles precisavam eram pesados demais e não tinham como serem usados. As réplicas, e muito bem feitas, que foram construidas, estão todas no chão, não voam mesmo. As fotos que mostram o flyer voando bem como as belas filmagens, existe a denuncia que são todas de 1908 em diante, Alpheus Drinkwater,telegrafis, que mandou o telegrafo em 1903 para o pai deles comentando o sucesso dos voos em 1903, comentou nos anos 50 que naquele dia eles fizeram simples voos planados e que não tinha motor e nem hélices. Acredito que isto é um desabono e tanto para os wright, os irmãos wright não queria o sernhor Alpheus Drinkwater como su testemunha de maneira nennuma. O quartel do exercito próximo de huffmann prayrie não percebeu em momento nenhum atividade aerea? eles relataram terem feito ali o primeiro voo circular da historia dando 39 voltas sobre a área, espantoso. E a estação ferroviaria que ficava ao lado de huffman prayrie que não notificou coisa nenhuma, estranho orgãos federais não verem nada, não registrarem nada, não perceberem nada. Somente jornais não especializados publicaram alguma coisa e sem comprovação concreta. O escritorio de marcas e patentes do usa não aceitou o pedido deles referente a um aeroplano, obviamente foi solicitada uma demonstração e não conseguiram fazer nada, obviamente cabia a eles somente a planta de um planador, mas veja quantos poderiam ter feito para eles o registro de aeroplano se tivessem voado como Santos Dumont fez: Aero clube de bufalo criado em 1901, Instituto SMITHSSONIAN, o exercito americano, o proprio escritorio de marcas e patentes dos usa teriam homologado a planta de um aeroplano se o mesmo tivesse voado como Dumont voou. Se conseguiram filmar voos deles em planadores em 1902, por que não filmaram nos outros anos, por que deixaram de fazer demonstrações para estes orgãos e seus especialistas e resolvido a questão da patente e posteriormente a riqueza, que eles tanto almejavam, e que viria logo após simples demonstrações que podiam ser feitas, ou será que eles estavam naquela época iguais as réplicas de hoje, ou seja, no chão??

  14. Geniality and murder are always running side by side. Another good example of this is about Mozart:

    "1. Murder

    Because Mozart had been nothing short of a musical phenomenon, it is only natural for romantic speculations of murder by insane, jealous rivals to arise. Mozart himself had fuelled these rumours of murder by telling Constanze in 1789 that 'I am only too conscious [that] my end will not be long in coming; for sure, someone has poisoned me!' Six months before his death, he was known to confide in a source that 'someone has given me acqua toffana4 and has calculated the precise time of my death.' Mozart's son Karl also offered the following corroborative testimony: '...the corpse did not become stiff and cold but, as was the case with Pope Ganganelli and those who die from poisoning by plants, remained soft and elastic.'"

    - source BBC