The Robinson Library > Technology > Aeronautics > Biography
Alberto Santos-DumontAlberto Santos-Dumont

the first man to fly a heavier-than-air craft in Europe

Alberto Santos-Dumont was born in Cabangu, State of Minas Gerais, Brazil, on July 20, 1873, the son of prosperous coffee plantation owners. He and his family emigrated to France in 1891, where he devoted his time to the study of chemistry, physics, astronomy, and mechanics.

Always mechanically inclined, Santos-Dumont was one of the many who became interested in the fledgling field of aeronautics. After making his first balloon ascent in early 1898, in a balloon built and piloted by someone else, he began working on his own designs. In particular, he wanted to develop a way to control the flight of a balloon. His first steerable balloon (dirigible), dubbed the Santos Dumont No. 1, ascended on September 18, 1898. Santos-Dumont flies his dirigible around the Eiffel TowerAfter making improvements to his first design, he was finally ready to claim his first official aeronautics record. On October 19, 1901, he piloted his Airship No. 6 from a designated starting point, around the Eiffel Tower, and then back to his starting point in less than 30 minutes. For this achievement he was rewarded with the Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize, given by the Aero-Club du France, as well as 100,000 francs. He subsequently gave half his prize money to his mechanics, and the other half to the poor of Paris.

left: Santos-Dumont flies his dirigible around the Eiffel Tower

Having gone as far as he deemed necessary with dirigibles, Santos-Dumont next turned to the problem of heavier-than-air flight. Sometime around 1904 he began experimenting with gliders. In 1905 he built a helicopter, but the craft never flew. In 1906, he built a biplane loosely based on plans of the Wright Brothers' Flyer that had been published in European magazines. The box-like elevator and rudder assembly protruded in front of the wings, looking somewhat like the head of a duck in flight, and was dubbed by the public canard (French for "duck"); Santos-Dumont, however, called this airplane 14-bis ("14-encore"), because it made its first flight while suspended from the belly of his No. 14 Dirigible. The craft made its first independent flight on September 13, 1906, and covered a distance of between 23 and 43 feet (depending on which source you believe); Santos-Dumont had just become the first man to fly a heavier-than-air craft in Europe. What's more, he had also become the first to fly an airplane that did not require a catapault or any other type of assistance to take off. Santos-Dumont setting the first European flight recordMost of Santos-Dumont's early flights were made without any official "record keepers" present, so he is not always credited with either of the above-stated achievements. On November 12, 1906, however, Santos-Dumont flew a distance of 722 feet (220 meters) in 21-1/2 seconds, and did so with members of the Aero-Club du France in attendance. This flight went down in the official records as the first aviation record to be set in Europe -- namely, the first flight in Europe over 100 meters.

right: Santos-Dumont setting the first European flight record

After the success of No. 14, Santos-Dumont again began improving his design, this time turning the entire design around and putting the canard in the rear. Unfortunately, No. 15 refused to fly.

the DemoiselleTurning now to monoplanes, Santos-Dumont produced four unsuccessful designs before coming up with the Demoiselle, which first flew in 1909. The lightweight plane proved so successful, it is now considered the world's first ultralight aircraft. Hoping that aviation would become a worldwide obsession, Santos-Dumont offered plans for the airplane to the public free of charge, and blueprints were published by magazines around the world.

right: the Demoiselle

Santos-Dumont continued to make advances in aviation until being stricken with multiple sclerosis sometime in the mid-1910's. He retired from aviation altogether in 1916 and returned to Brazil, where he made his home for the rest of his life. He died in his home near São Paulo on July 23, 1932.

Early Birds of Aviation

Eiffel Tower

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library > Technology > Aeronautics > Biography

This page was last updated on 03/21/2017.