Alberto Santos-Dumont (July 20, 1873 – July 23, 1932) was a Brazilian early pioneer of aviation. Heir of a prosperous coffee producer family, Santos Dumont dedicated himself to science studies in Paris, France, where he spent most of his adult life.
Santos-Dumont designed, built and flew the first practical dirigible balloons. In doing so he became the first person to demonstrate that routine, controlled flight was possible. This "conquest of the air", in particular winning the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize on October 19, 1901 on a flight that rounded the Eiffel Tower, made him one of the most famous people in the world during the early 20th century.
In addition to his pioneering work in airships, Santos-Dumont made the first European public flight of an airplane on October 23, 1906. Designated 14-bis or Oiseau de proie (French for "bird of prey"), the flying machine was the first fixed-wing aircraft witnessed by the European press and French aviation authorities to take off and successfully fly. Santos-Dumont is considered the "Father of Aviation" in Brazil, his native country. His flight is the first to have been certified by the Aéro Club de France and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).
Santos-Dumont also occupied the 38th chair of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, from 1931 until his death in 1932.
Santos-Dumont was born in Cabangu Farm, a farm in the Brazilian town of Palmira, today named Santos Dumont in the state of Minas Gerais. He grew up as the sixth of eight children on a coffee plantation owned by his family in the state of São Paulo. His French-born father was an engineer, and made extensive use of the latest labor-saving inventions on his vast property. So successful were these innovations that Santos-Dumont's father gathered a large fortune and became known as the "Coffee King of Brazil."
He was fascinated by machinery, and while still a young child he learned to drive the steam tractors and locomotive used on his family's plantation. He was also a fan of Jules Verne and had read all his books before his tenth birthday. He wrote in his autobiography that the dream of flying came to him while contemplating the magnificent skies of Brazil in the long, sunny afternoons at the plantation.
According to the custom of wealthy families of the time, after receiving basic instruction at home with private instructors including his parents, young Alberto was sent out alone to larger cities to do his secondary studies. He studied for a while in "Colégio Culto à Ciência", in Campinas.
In 1891, Alberto's father had an accident while inspecting some machinery. He fell from his horse and became a paraplegic. He decided to sell the plantation and move to Europe with his wife and younger children. At 17, Santos-Dumont left the prestigious Escola de Minas in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, for Paris in France. Shortly after he arrived, he bought an automobile. Later, he pursued studies in physics, chemistry, mechanics, and electricity with the help of a private tutor.
Santos-Dumont described himself as the first "sportsman of the air." He started flying by hiring an experienced balloon pilot and took his first balloon rides as a passenger. He quickly moved on to piloting balloons himself, and shortly thereafter to designing his own balloons. In 1898, Santos-Dumont flew his first balloon design, the Brésil.
After numerous balloon flights, he turned to the design of steerable balloons or dirigible type balloons that could be propelled through the air rather than drifting along with the breeze (See Airship).
Between 1898 and 1905, he built and flew 11 dirigibles. With air traffic control restrictions still decades in the future, he would glide along Paris boulevards at rooftop level in one of his airships, commonly landing in front of a fashionable outdoor cafe for lunch. On one occasion he even flew an airship early one morning to his own apartment at No. 9, Rue Washington, just off Avenue des Champs-Élysées, not far from the Arc de Triomphe.
To win the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize Santos-Dumont decided to build a bigger balloon, the dirigible Number 5. On August 8, 1901 during one of his attempts, his dirigible lost hydrogen gas. It started to descend and was unable to clear the roof of the Trocadero Hotel. A large explosion was then heard. Santos-Dumont survived the explosion and was left hanging in a basket from the side of the hotel. With the help of the crowd he climbed to the roof without injury.
The zenith of his lighter-than-air career came when he won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize. The challenge called for flying from the Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in less than thirty minutes. The winner of the prize needed to maintain an average ground speed of at least 22 km/h (14 mph) to cover the round trip distance of 11 km (6.8 miles) in the allotted time.
On October 19, 1901, after several attempts, Santos-Dumont succeeded in using his dirigible Number 6. Immediately after the flight, a controversy broke out around a last minute rule change regarding the precise timing of the flight. There was much public outcry and comment in the press. Finally, after several days of vacillating by the committee of officials, Santos-Dumont was awarded the prize as well as the prize money of 125,000 francs. In a charitable gesture, he donated 75,000 francs of the prize money to the poor of Paris. The balance was given to his workmen as a bonus. An additional matching 125,000 francs was voted to him along with a gold medal by the government of his native Brazil.
Santos-Dumont's aviation feats made him a celebrity in Europe and throughout the world. He won several more prizes and became a friend to millionaires, aviation pioneers, and royalty. In 1903 Aida D'Acosta Breckinridge piloted Santos-Dumont's airship. In 1904, he went to the United States and was invited to the White House to meet U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
The public eagerly followed his daring exploits. Parisians affectionately dubbed him le petit Santos. The fashionable folk of the day mimicked various aspects of his style of dress from his high collared shirts to singed Panama hat. He was, and remains to this day, a prominent folk hero in his native Brazil.