Santos Dumont invented the airplane

Anniversary of the death of the aviation pioneer Santos Dumont

For Brazilians one thing is clear: the father of the aircraft is Alberto Santos Dumont. And you are probably not completely wrong. He was a celebrated man in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, and his monument, erected in 1910, still adorns Bagatelle Park to the west of the city, where he held his air shows.

Santos is still largely unknown abroad. "But let's wait and see," says Professor Holger Steinle, curator of the aviation exhibition at the German Museum of Technology in Berlin, "Otto Lilienthal only became known abroad 100 years after his death."

From Brazil to Paris

Santos Dumont 1908

Alberto Santos Dumont was born on July 2, 1873 in the Brazilian village of Palmira, which today bears his name. As the son of wealthy landowners of French and Portuguese origin, he had the opportunity to travel to Paris for the first time at the age of 17. There he is said to have met a certain Monsieur Peugeot, of whose automobiles he took one with him to Brazil. In 1892 Dumont began studying physics and mechanics in Paris, among other things.

As a student in Paris, he experienced the triumphant advance of technical innovations such as electric light, cars and the internal combustion engine. And he was able to partake of it thanks to a generous advance on his father's inheritance.

Success: The '14 -bis' flew 220m

Aviation pioneer

In the mid-1890s, Santos Dumont came into contact with ballooning and began building motorized airships in 1898. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, he circled the Eiffel Tower with the "Santos Dumont No. 6" in front of a cheering crowd from the Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud.

The criteria of the "German Prize", which the French industrialist Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe had donated - namely to cover the distance in 30 minutes - he missed by only 40 seconds. Only after protests by the press and public did the Aero Club award Dumont the award. He donated half of the 100,000 francs to the needy in the city.

Dumont or Wright?

More controversial, however, is his role as "the father of the airplane", as the Brazilians call him to this day. "As the builder of the first controllable balloon, Santos Dumont is the father of the airship," says Holger Steinle from the German Museum of Technology, "but the Wright brothers invented the airplane."

Marisa Guadalupe Plum, director of the Santos Dumont Museum in Petrópolis, Brazil, sees it differently: "Santos Dumont was the first to fly with a demonstrable motor vehicle. to "25 meters. A short time later it even flew 220 meters." With this, Dumont won the Archdeacon Prize for a flight with a device "heavier than air", as the challenge was then.

Santos Dumont was more successful with airships than with airplanes

The Wright brothers, who are much better known in the rest of the world today, claim to have achieved this as early as 1903, but did so in August 1908 in front of the public.

But Steinle objects: "The Wrights were the first to build planes that really stayed in the air for a long time, that were steerable and - like Dumont's airships - could return to the starting point of the journey. And that again and again." According to the Berlin curator, these are the criteria that are commonly used today so that one can speak of "flying".

Suicide in São Paulo

Dumont's stance on the military use of his inventions is also controversial. "Before the First World War, he had no objection when the French military asked him if they could use his aircraft," says Guadalupe Plum. "But when he saw the war in France, it made him feel depressed."

On July 23, 1922, Alberto Santos Dumont committed suicide near São Paulo. It was the day that Getúlio Vargas’s Brazilian revolutionary government planes attacked the city of São Paulo.