Alberto Santos-Dumont: the forgotten dandy of the skies

When most people think of the first aviators they think of the Wright Brothers who made the first manned flight. But in Brazil and elsewhere, many people think of Alberto Santos-Dumont, the first person to publically achieve sustained flight. It might seem like picking at hairs, but the Wrights early aircraft could sustain controlled flight, but only with assistance. Usually a favourable headwind or the use of launch rails and catapults. In other words, the Wrights’ early aeroplanes never took off under their own steam.

Santos-Dumont made the first public flight in Paris in 1906. The Wright’s made their first public demonstration in 1908 (here’s how it was reported in Scientific American), although they claimed to have flown as early as 1903. No one disputes that the Wrights’ ground-breaking work on aerodynamics and propellers added more to the design of the aeroplane than anyone else.

The Brazillian aeronaught was also a pioneer of airships and built the world’s first hybrid airship as early as 1905. In the days before air traffic control he would glide along Paris boulevards at rooftop level sometimes landing in front of a fashionable outdoor cafe for lunch. A notorious dandy, Santos-Dumont is credited with popularising the wristwatch. the story goes that in 1904, after celebrating winning an aviation prize at Maxim’s Restaurant in Paris he complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance during flight. He asked Cartier to develop an alternative that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls.