Alberto Santos-Dumont was a pioneer aviator, brilliant engineer, international celebrity and the toast of the town in Belle Epoque Paris and the Victorian Era. By rounding the Eiffel Tower in a motorized dirigible in 1901, he proved to the world that air travel was a practical means of transportation.
Santos-Dumont designed, built and tested more than a dozen dirigibles (steerable airships). One of his most popular was, the No. 9 “Baladeuse” or his runabout, which he built to demonstrate the possibilities of urban travel.
The Runabout was the smallest of his airships, powered by a 3 horsepower motor and a relatively small gasbag capacity of 220 cubic meters. It achieved an average speed of 12 to 15 miles per hour around town.
At a time when automobiles were still a novelty, Santos-Dumont routinely floated above the streets of Paris, tending to his daily business. He was the first and only person to own a personal flying machine that could take him just about anywhere he wanted to go. Always impeccably dressed, he regularly took a gourmet lunch with him on his ballooning expeditions.
In Wings of Madness, Paul Hoffman says that the eccentric Brazilian “would keep his dirigible tied to a gas lamp post in front of his Paris apartment at the Champs-Elysees and every night he would fly to Maxim’s for dinner. During the day he’d fly to go shopping, he’d fly to visit friends.” On many occasions he flew his airship to one of the Paris boulevards and land in front of a café where he would have a drink.
“I thought of the time, sure to come, when the owners of handy little air-ships will not be obliged to land in the street, but will have their guide ropes caught by their domestics on their own roof gardens. But such roof gardens must be broad and unencumbered.
So I reached my corner, to which I pointed my stem, and descended very gently. Two servants caught, steadied and held the air-ship, while I mounted to my apartment for a cup of coffee. From my round bay window at the corner I looked down upon the air-ship. Were I to receive the municipal permission it would not be difficult to build an ornamental landing stage out from that window.”
At her urging, Santos-Dumont allowed American socialite, Aida de Acosta to fly No. 9. After a few lessons, he escorted her from the ground, but she did it alone. More to come on that story next week.
Santos-Dumont Dreamed of Flying As A Boy
Born in the village of Cabangu, Brasil in 1873, Alberto Santos-Dumont was obsessed with the idea of flying since he was a boy. At the age of 18, his father sent him to Paris to study chemistry, physics, astronomy and mathematics. He financed his lavish lifestyle and aerial experiments there with the inheritance his coffee-farming father had advanced him as a young man.
He started with hot air balloons in 1898, but quickly turned to powered airships that could be controlled. Using the earlier work of Henri Giffard, who in 1852 was the first engineer to prove that an airship could be controlled, Santos-Dumont began building his series of airships over the next decade.
In April of 1900, Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first aviator to fly round trip from the Aero-Club de France’s field at Parc Saint Cloud, around the Eiffel Tower and back in thirty minutes or less. The winning aeronaut would have to maintain an average ground speed of at least 14 mph to win the prize.
Santos Dumont met the challenge on Oct. 19, 1901 in his air-ship known as No. 6. He divided the purse between his crew and the poor people of France.
According to Blemya.com, Santos Dumont applied many of the lessons he had learned from previous dirigibles to his No. 6 model. You can see the engines of his various models on their site.
The Victorian Era equivalent of the paparazzi descended on Santos-Dumont. Reporters from newspapers and magazines including the Paris Herald and New York Herald reported routinely on his latest escapades and inventions. People emulated his dapper style of clothing. Toy dirigibles, cakes shaped like his air ships were the rage. His image appeared everywhere.
Santos-Dumont entertained many famous people including Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt. Celebrities and royalty dined regularly at his apartment. He became known for his “sky high” tables and chairs that required his guests to climb a ladder.
In 1904, Cartier created a wrist watch for Santos-Dumont so he would not have to pull out his pocket watch while handling controls during a flight. It featured geometric shapes and exposed screws and quickly became an icon within the Cartier line. The Santos-Dumont line is still sold today.
Once he solved the problem of steering his lighter-than-air vehicles, Santos Dumont became frustrated by their vulnerability to weather. He turned to the challenge of flying heavier-than-air craft.
Many people in Brazil and in the aeronautical community believe that Santos-Dumont, not the Wright Brothers should be credited with the first sustained flight. But more on that in a later post.
He found flight soothing to his spirit. He loved to get above the crowd and noise of daily life where he could think more clearly. Always the idealist, he believed flight could bring people together and would ultimately lead to worldwide peace.
Racing Nellie Bly
Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History
Know The Past To Invent The Future
This excellent documentary by NOVA includes footage of Santos-Dumont.