The World's Forum for Aerospace Leadership

  • Donate
  • Press Room
  • Renew
  • View Cart
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Pioneer Profile

    Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932)

    Alberto-Santos-DumontBorn in the village of Cabangu, Brazil, 20 July 1873.
    Died 23 july 1932.

    Alberto Santos-Dumont was born on 20 July 1873, in the village of Cabangu, state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. at the age of 18, his father sent Santos-Dumont to Paris where he devoted his time to the studies of chemistry, physics, astronomy and mechanics. he had a dream and an objective: to fly. in 1898, Santos-Dumont went up in his first balloon. it was round and unusually small and he called it brésil (brazil). however, it was capable of lifting a payload of 114.4 lb, and had in its lower part a wicker basket. his second balloon, "america," had 500 m3 of capacity and gave Santos-Dumont the aero club of paris' award for the study of atmospheric currents. twelve balloons participated in this competition but "america" reached a greater altitude and remained in the air for 22 hours. between 1898 and 1905 he built and flew 11 dirigibles. contrary to the prevailing common sense at that time, he employed in his lighter-than-air aircraft piston-powered engines with the lifting-gas hydrogen. he won the deutsch prize, which was conceived and granted by the oil tycoon deustch de la merthe, when for the first time in the history a dirigible went around the eiffel tower on october 19th, 1901. this prize amounting 100,000 francs stipulated a dirigible ride comprised of a flight with takeoff and landing at the saint-cloud field with a total duration of 30 minutes, including the going around the eiffel tower. in 1904, Santos-Dumont came to the united states and was invited to the white house to meet president theodore roosevelt, who was very interested in the possible use of dirigibles in naval warfare. the interesting thing is that santos-dumont and the wright brothers never met, even though they had heard of each other's work.



    Alberto Santos-Dumont at the helm of one of his airships. source: Museu Aeroespacial, Rio de Janeiro
    Santos-Dumont going around the Eiffel Tower with its No. 6 Dirigible on 19 October 1901. source: Museu Aeroespacial, Rio de Janeiro

    Louis Cartier invented the wristwatch for his famous friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont, in march of 1904. they had met and become good friends in 1900. Santos-Dumont's deustch prize conquest was celebrated at maxim's that evening, and at some point Santos-Dumont complained to cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance. he wanted his friend to come up with an alternative that would permit him to keep both hands on the controls. louis cartier went to work on the idea and the result was a watch with a leather band and a small buckle, to be worn on the wrist. santos-dumont never took off again without his personal cartier wristwatch.

    Santos-Dumont also designed a helicopter, the picture of which was displayed on the cover page of the periodic "la vie au grand air" of january 12, 1906. due to technical difficulties to put such machine airborne, Santos-Dumont pursued his dream of flying with a winged aircraft, instead. in 1906, santos-dumont took the nacelle of his dirigible balloon no. 14 and added to it a fuselage and biplane wings, whose cellular structure resembled the kites still found nowadays in japan. an antoinette v8 engine of 24 hp power was installed ahead of the wings, driving a propulsion propeller; the airplane flew rear-first and was denominated 14-bis (since it was descendent of the dirigible balloon no. 14). it had a wingspan of 12 m and 10-m-long fuselage, and had a tricycle fixed landing gear. santos-dumont developed what has to be called the first flight simulator, using winches and gears to let the 14-bis roll down a plan, while he learned how to control the plane. on 21 august 1906, santos-dumont made his first attempt to fly. he did not succeed, since the 14bis was underpowered. on september 13th, with a reengined 14bis (now with a 40 or 50 hp power engine which he obtained through louis bréguet), Santos-Dumont made the first flight of 7 or 13 m (according to different accounts) above the ground, which ended with a violent landing, damaging the propeller and landing gear. on october 23th, 1906 his 14bis biplane flew a distance of 60 meters at a height of 2 to 3 meters during a seven-sec-long flight. Santos-Dumont won the 3,000 francs prize archdeacon, instituted in july 1906 by the american ernest archdeacon, to honor the first flyer to achieve a level flight of at least 25 m. before his next flight santos-dumont modified the 14-bis by the addition of large hexagonal ailerons, to give some control in roll. since he already had his hands full with the rudder and elevator controls (and could not use peddles since he was standing), he operated these via a harness attached to his chest. if he wanted to roll right he would lean to his right, and vice versa. one witness likened santos-dumont's contortions while flying the 14-bis to dancing the samba! with the modified aircraft, he returned to bagatelle on 12 november. this time the brazilian made six increasingly successful flights. one of these flights was 21,4 sec long within a 220 m path at a height of 6 m. the brazilian always used his cartier wristwatch to check the duration of his flights. the flight experiments with the 14bis took place at le bagatelle (air)field in paris. Santos-Dumont did not employ any catapult or similar device to place his craft aloft. as far as the world knew, it was the first airplane flight ever and santos-dumont became a hero to the world press. the stories about the wright brothers' flights at kitty hawk and later near dayton, ohio, were not believed even in the us at the time.

    dirigible-no-14   first-sustained-flight-1906
    The dirigible no. 14 and the 14b during trials to evaluate its flight characteristics. source: Museu Aeroespacial, Rio de Janeiro   The first sustained flight of a fixed-wing craft took place on 23 october 1906 in France. source: Museu Aeroespacial, Rio de Janeiro

    The Brazilian aviation pioneer continued with his experiments, building other dirigible balloons, as well as the aircraft no. 19, initially called Libellule (later changed to Demoiselle) in 1907. It was a small high-wing monoplane, with only 5.10 m wingspan, 8 m long and weighing little more than 110 Kg with Santos Dumont at the controls. With optimum performance, easily covering 200 m of ground during the initial flights and flying at speeds of more than 100 km/h. Dumont used to perform flights with the airplane on Paris and some small trips for nearby places. The Demoiselle was the last aircraft built by Santos Dumont and the type suffered several modifications from 1907 to 1909. Santos Dumont was so enthusiastic about the aviation that he released the drawings of Demoiselle for free, thinking that the aviation would be the mainstream of a new prosperous era for the mankind. Clément Bayard, an automotive maker, constructed several units of Demoiselle. Dumont retired from his aeronautical activities in 1910. Alberto Santos Dumont, seriously ill and disappointed, it is said, over the use of aircraft in warfare, committed suicide in the city of Guarujá in São Paulo on July 23, 1932. His numerous and decisive contributions to aviation are his legacy to mankind.

    14B-flying-November-1906   Demoiselle-monoplane
    The 14Bis flying on 12 November 1906. The new ailerons are clearly visible. Source: Museu Aeroespacial, Rio de Janeiro   The successful Demoiselle monoplane, which Santos-Dumont employed as private transport. Source: Museu Aeroespacial, Rio de Janeiro


    Visit the Brazil Profile for more information on Brazilian pioneers.

    Provided to the AIAA for the purpose of its Evolution of Flight Campaign.