Alberto Santos-Dumont

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Alberto Santos-Dumont
Alberto Santos Dumont 02.jpg
Born(1873-07-20)20 July 1873
Palmira, Minas Gerais, Empire of Brazil
Died23 July 1932(1932-07-23) (aged 59)
Guarujá, São Paulo, Brazil
Resting place
São João Batista Cemetery, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
OccupationAviator, inventor
HonoursGrand Officier de la Légion d'honneur
SignatureAssinatura do Santos Dumont 2.png
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This article is about the aviator. For the city named after him, see Santos Dumont, Minas Gerais.
Alberto Santos-Dumont
Alberto Santos Dumont 02.jpg
Born(1873-07-20)20 July 1873
Palmira, Minas Gerais, Empire of Brazil
Died23 July 1932(1932-07-23) (aged 59)
Guarujá, São Paulo, Brazil
Resting place
São João Batista Cemetery, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
OccupationAviator, inventor
HonoursGrand Officier de la Légion d'honneur
SignatureAssinatura do Santos Dumont 2.png
Caricature of Santos-Dumont from Vanity Fair, 1899

Alberto Santos-Dumont (Portuguese pronunciation: [ɐwˈbɛʁtu ˈsɐ̃tuz duˈmõ]; 20 July 1873 – 23 July 1932) was a Brazilian aviation pioneer. The heir of a wealthy family of coffee producers, Santos Dumont dedicated himself to aeronautical study and experimentation in Paris, France, where he spent most of his adult life.

Santos-Dumont designed, built, and flew the first practical dirigible, demonstrating that routine, controlled flight was possible. This "conquest of the air", in particular his winning the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize on 19 October 1901 on a flight that rounded the Eiffel Tower, made him one of the most famous people in the world during the early 20th century.

Following his pioneering work in airships, Santos-Dumont constructed a heavier-than-air aircraft, the 14-bis. On 23 October 1906 he flew this to make the first powered heavier-than-air flight in Europe, certified by the Aéro Club de France and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).

In his homeland, Brazil, Santos-Dumont is a national hero, having his name written in Brazilian Hero Panthéon. He is credited in Brazil as the father of aviation.

Santos-Dumont occupied the 38th chair of the Brazilian Academy of Letters from 1931 until his death in 1932.



Santos-Dumont was born in Cabangu Farm, a farm in the Brazilian town of Palmira, today named Santos Dumont in the state of Minas Gerais, in southeast Brazil. He grew up as the sixth of eight 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 10th birthday. Santos-Dumont 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. Santos-Dumont studied for a while in "Colégio Culto à Ciência", in Campinas.[citation needed]

Move to France[edit]

In 1891, Alberto's father had an accident while inspecting some machinery. He fell from his horse and became a paraplegic.[citation needed]He decided to sell the plantation and move to Europe with his wife and younger children. At 17, Santos-Dumont left the prestigious Escola de Minas in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, for Paris.[1] Shortly after he arrived, Santos-Dumont bought an automobile. Later, he pursued studies in physics, chemistry, mechanics, and electricity with the help of a private tutor.

Balloons and dirigibles[edit]

The Bresil, Santos-Dumont's first balloon.
Airship basket that belonged to Alberto Santos-Dumont

Santos Dumont made his first balloon ascent in 1897 in a hired balloon piloted by Alexis Manchuron[2] and constructed by H. Lachambre. Taking off from Vaugirard, the flight lasted nearly two hours during which the balloon travelled 100 km (62 mi), coming down in the grounds of the Château de Ferrières. Enchanted by the experience, during the train journey back to Paris Santos-Dumont told Manchuron that he wanted to have a balloon constructed for himself.[3] Before this was completed he gained experience by making a number of demonstration flights for Lachambre.[4]

Santos-Dumont's first balloon design, the Brésil, was remarkable for its small size and light weight, with a capacity of only 113 m3 (4,000 cu ft). In comparison, the balloon in which he had made his first flight had a capacity of 750 m3 (26,000 cu ft).

After numerous balloon flights, Santos-Dumont turned to the design of steerable balloons, or dirigibles, that could be propelled through the air rather than drifting along with the wind. A dirigible powered by an electric motor, La France, capable of flying at around 24 km/h (15 mph) had been successfully flown in 1884 by Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs, but their experiments had not progressed due to a lack of funding.[5] His first design was wrecked during its second flight on 29 September 1898, and he had even less luck with his second, which was abandoned after his first attempt to fly it on 11 May 1899. A major cause of the accidents to his first two airships had been loss of pressure causing the elongated envelope to lose shape, and for his third design he adopted a much shorter and fatter envelope shape, and towards the end of 1899 made a number of successful flights in it. Meanwhile he had an airship shed complete with its own hydrogen generating plant constructed at the Aéro-Club de France's flying grounds in the Parc Saint Cloud.[6]

The zenith of his lighter-than-air career came when Santos-Dumont won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize. This was for the first flight from the Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in less than 30 minutes, necessitating an average ground speed of at least 22 km/h (14 mph) to cover the round trip distance of 11 km (6.8 mi) in the allotted time.

Santos-Dumont #6 rounding the Eiffel Tower in the process of winning the Deutsch Prize

To win the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize Santos-Dumont decided to build a bigger craft, the dirigible Number 5. On 8 August 1901, during one of his attempts, his dirigible began to leak hydrogen gas. It started to descend and was unable to clear the roof of the Trocadero Hotel. Santos-Dumont was left hanging in a basket from the side of the hotel. With the help of the Paris fire brigade, he climbed to the roof without injury, but the dirigible was a write-off. He immediately ordered a replacement to be constructed.[7]

On 19 October 1901, after several attempts, Santos-Dumont succeeded in making the trip in using his dirigible Number 6. Immediately after the flight, a controversy broke out regarding the precise timing of the flight: although had reached Saint-Cloud in under 30 minutes there had been a delay of over a minute before his mooring line was picked up. However a satisfactory compromise was reached, and Santos Dumont was given the prize, which he announced would be given to the poor of Paris.[8] An additional 125,000 francs along with a gold medal was voted to him by the government of his native Brazil.

Winning the de la Meurthe prize 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. With air traffic control restrictions still decades in the future, he would float along the Paris boulevards at rooftop level his No. 9 Baladeuse, commonly landing in front of a fashionable outdoor cafe for lunch. On one occasion, he even flew it 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.[1] In 1903 Aida de Acosta piloted Santos-Dumont's airship.

Aida de Acosta piloted Santos-Dumont's airship in 1903.

In 1904 Santos-Dumont shipped his new airship No. 7, from Paris to St. Louis to fly at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, to compete for the Grand Prize of $100,000 which was to be given to a flying machine (of any sort) that could make three round-trip flights over a 24 km (15 mile) “L”-shaped course at an overall average speed of 32 kph (20 mph), later reduced to 24 kph (15 mph). It was also necessary for the machine to land without damage to craft or crew not more than 46 m (150 ft) from the starting point. Because he was the best-known aviator at the time, the Fair committee went to great lengths to ensure his participation, including modifying the rules. However, upon arrival in St. Louis, Santos-Dumont found his airship’s gas bag to be irreparably damaged. Sabotage, although suspected, was never proven, and Santos-Dumont did not participate in the contest after suspicion of the deed, a repeat of a similar incident in Boston, began to focus somewhat absurdly on Santos-Dumont himself. He indignantly left the Fair and returned immediately to France.

Parisians affectionately dubbed Santos-Dumont le petit Santos. The fashionable people of the day copied various aspects of his style of dress, from his high collared shirts to his signature Panama hat. He was, and remains to this day, a prominent folk hero in his native Brazil.

Heavier than air aircraft[edit]

First official flight, 23 October 1906, Bagatelle field.

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 fixed-wing aircraft design, and also a helicopter. Santos-Dumont finally achieved his dream of flying an aircraft on 23 October 1906 by piloting the 14-bis before a large crowd of witnesses for a distance of 60 metres (197 ft) at a height of about five meters or less (15 ft).[9] 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 won the Deutsch-Archdeacon Price for the first officially observed flight of more than 25 meters. On 12 November 1906 Santos-Dumont set the first world record recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale by flying 220 metres in 21.5 seconds.[10][11]

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 wing dihedral. He also pushed for and exploited substantial improvements in engine power-to-weight ratio, and other refinements in aircraft construction techniques.

Alberto Santos-Dumont flying the Demoiselle over Paris

Santos-Dumont's final design were the Demoiselle monoplanes (Nos. 19 to 22). These aircraft were used by Dumont for personal transport. The fuselage consisted of three specially reinforced bamboo booms, and the pilot sat a seat between the main wheels of a tricycle landing gear. The Demoiselle was controlled in flight by a tail unit that functioned both as elevator and rudder, and by wing warping (No. 20).

In 1908 Santos-Dumont started working with Adolphe Clément's Clement-Bayard company to mass-produce the Demoiselle No 19. They planned a production run of 100 units, built 50 but sold only 15, for 7,500 francs for each airframe. It was the world's first series production aircraft. By 1909 it was offered with a choice of three engines: Clement 20 hp; Wright 4-cyl 30 hp (Clement-Bayard had the license to manufacture Wright engines) and Clement-Bayard 40 hp designed by Pierre Clerget. The Demoiselle could achieve a speed of 120 km/h.[12]

The Demoiselle could be constructed in only 15 days. Possessing a good performance, flying at a speed of more than 100 km/h, the Demoiselle was the last aircraft designed by Santos-Dumont. The June 1910 edition of the Popular Mechanics magazine published drawings of the Demoiselle and stated, "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 for Demoiselles for several years afterward. Santos-Dumont was so enthusiastic about aviation that he made the drawings of the Demoiselle available free of charge, thinking that aviation would lead to a new prosperous era for mankind.

14-bis on an old postcard


When flying, Santos-Dumont needed to measure time intervals. The wristwatch had been invented centuries 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 jewelery, while men favored pocket watches.

In 1904, while celebrating his winning of the Deutsch Prize at Maxim's Restaurant in Paris, 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.[13]

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 21 seconds aided by a large headwind, on 12 November 1906. The Santos-Dumont watch was officially displayed on 20 October 1979 at the Paris Air Museum next to the 1908 Demoiselle, the last aircraft that he built.

Cartier market wristwatches and sunglasses named after Santos-Dumont. [14]

Later years[edit]

Santos-Dumont next to balloonist Eduardo Bradley of Argentina

Santos-Dumont bought one of the very early Le Zèbre cars, now on display at the São Paulo car museum.

Santos-Dumont continued to build and fly airplanes, such as the Demoiselle. His final flight as a pilot was made in a Demoiselle on 4 January 1910. The flight ended in an accident, but the cause was never completely clear. There were few observers and no reporters on the scene. However, in a PBS documentary about Santos-Dumont it is alleged that the crash was due to a snapped wire.[15]

Santos-Dumont fell seriously ill a few months later. He experienced double vision and vertigo, making 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 (now Benerville-sur-Mer) where he took up astronomy as a hobby. Some of the local people, 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, Santos-Dumont burned all of his papers, plans and notes. Thus, there is little direct information available about his designs today.

In 1928, Santos-Dumont left France to go back to his country of birth. 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. The seaplane, however, crashed with the loss of all on board.[16] The loss deepened Santos-Dumont's growing despondency.

"A Encantada", the house (chalet) of Santos-Dumont in Petrópolis

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 in 1918 built a small house there filled with imaginative mechanical gadgetry including an alcohol-fueled heated shower of his own design. 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 (The Enchanted), after its street, Rua do Encanto (Enchantment Street). 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. As the first hollow was in the left side of the stairs, people must step first with their right foot to climb it.

Private life[edit]

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 other person 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 flowers. Nonetheless, there is no indication that Santos-Dumont and Acosta stayed in touch after her flight. Upon Santos-Dumont's death, Acosta was reported as saying that she hardly knew the man.

Santos-Dumont is also known to not only have often used an equal sign (=) between his two surnames in place of a hyphen, but also seems to have preferred that practice, to display equal respect for his father's French ethnicity and the Brazilian-Portuguese ethnicity of his mother.[17]


Santos-Dumont – seriously ill, and said to be depressed over his multiple sclerosis (not confirmed) and the use of aircraft in warfare during São Paulo's Constitutionalist Revolution, on 23 July 1932, committed suicide by hanging himself in the city of Guarujá in São Paulo.[16] However, his mysterious death in circumstances not totally explainable, provides sound elements to question if he was not murdered instead.[18]

After lying in state for two days in the crypt of São Paulo cathedral his body was taken to Rio de Janeiro and after a State funeral Santos-Dumont was buried in the São João Batista Cemetery.[19] There are many monuments commemorating him in the country of his birth and elsewhere. His house in Petrópolis, Brazil is now a museum.[20] In 1997, the U.S. President Bill Clinton referred to Santos-Dumont as the father of aviation, as a clear form of recognizing the importance of his work to the aviation industry and history of aircraft.[21]



Bust near the Brazilian Embassy, Washington, D.C., USA
Santos-Dumont flying the Demoiselle No21, Museum of Air and Space, Le Bourget
Ice cream made by the Santos Dumont Coffee Company.

See also[edit]

Alberto Santos-Dumont footage starts at 21 seconds in this 1945 newsreel on various firsts in human flight, but be aware of controversial claims in the narration (full size).



  1. ^ a b Hamre, Bonnie. "Alberto Santos Dumont." Retrieved: 20 August 2012.
  2. ^ "M. Santos Dumont". l'Aérophile (in French): 72. April 1901. 
  3. ^ Santos-Dumont 1904,pp. 33-42
  4. ^ Santos-Dumont 1904,p. 48
  5. ^ Hallion 2003 pp. 87–88.
  6. ^ Santos-Dumont 1904, p. 129
  7. ^ Santos-Dumont 1904, p. 174
  8. ^ "M. Santos Dumont's Balloon" The Times (London). Monday, 21 October 1901. (36591), col A, p. 4.
  9. ^ Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. "Hops and Flights: A roll call of early powered take-offs." Flight, Volume 75, Issue 2619, 3 April 1959, p. 469. Retrieved: 24 August 2013.
  10. ^ Jines, Ernest. "Santos Dumont in France 1906-1916: The Very Earliest Early Birds.", 25 December 2006. Retrieved: 17 August 2009.
  11. ^ "Cronologia de Santos Dumont" (in Portuguese). 12 October 2010.
  12. ^ Hartmann, Gérard. "Clément-Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche" (French). Retrieved: 14 November 2010.
  13. ^ "Aviation Pioneer Scored A First in Watch-Wearing." The New York Times, 25 October 1975. Retrieved: 21 July 2009.
  14. ^ Cartier sunglasses. "Cartier rimmed sunglasses" (English). Retrieved: 9 December 2012.
  15. ^ "NOVA 124: Wings of Madness." PBS. Retrieved: 14 November 2010.
  16. ^ a b Hallion 2003, p. 93.
  17. ^ Gray 2006, p. 4.
  18. ^ Hoffman 2004, p. 384.
  19. ^ "The Late M. Santos Dumont" (News). The Times (London). Monday, 19 December 1932. (46320), col F, p. 11.
  20. ^ "Alberto Santos Dumont Lies In State in Brazil's Capital." The New York Times, 19 December 1932.
  21. ^ Clinton, Bill. "Remarks at a Reception With President Fernando Cardoso of Brazil in Brasilia." Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Volume 33, Issue 42, 20 October 1997.
  22. ^ "Les Croix de Aéro-Locomotion". l'Aérophile: 356. 1 August 1909. 
  23. ^ "Convocations". l'Aerophile (in French). 1–15 December 1929. 
  24. ^ "FESJ - Fundação Educacional São José." Retrieved: 9 August 2010.
  25. ^ "Airship Santos Dumont to Conduct Test Phase." Retrieved: 9 August 2010.
  26. ^ "Saint-Cloud."[dead link]
  27. ^ "Santos Dumont." Retrieved: 9 August 2010.
  28. ^


  • 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. ISBN 978-85-85752-17-0.
  • 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.
  • de Mattos, Bento S. "Open Source Philosophy and the Dawn of Aviation," J. Aerospace Technology Management, São José dos Campos, Vol. 4, No. 3, July–September 2012, pp. 355–379.
  • Garrett, Charles Hall. "A Builder of Successful Air-Ships". The World's Work: A History of Our Time, VIII, May 1904: pp. 4737–4739.
  • Gray, Carroll F. "The 1906 Santos=Dumont No. 14bis". World War I Aeroplanes, Issue #194, November 2006, pp. 4–21.
  • Hallion, Richard P. Taking Flight. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-1951-6035-5.
  • Hansen, James R. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. ISBN 978-0-7432-5631-5.
  • Hoffman, Paul. Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos Dumont and the Invention of Flight. New York: Hyperion Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7868-6659-5.
  • Santos Dumont, Alberto. My Airships. London, G. Richards, 1904 hos / Follow Your Dreams: The Story of Alberto Santos Dumont), (bilingual, Portuguese/English). Rio de Janeiro: Prometheus Press, 2005. ISBN 978-85-99240-02-1.
  • Winters, Nancy. Man Flies: The Story of Alberto Santos-Dumont, Master of the Balloon. New York: Ecco Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0-88001-636-0.
  • Wykeham, Peter. Santos Dumont: A Study in Obsession. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. ISBN 978-0-405-12210-1.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Graça Aranha (founder)
Brazilian Academy of Letters - Occupant of the 38th chair

1931 — 1932
Succeeded by
Celso Vieira