VOL. 11 January ISSUE YEAR 2010

Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 11 - January Issue - Year 2010
East Of The Imbrium
Alberto in one of his airships

Alberto in one of his airships

Alberto Santos-Dumont with Demoiselle

Alberto Santos-Dumont with Demoiselle

If, on a clear and cloudless night, you point your telescope towards the moon, slightly above the center of the lunar disk, you might be able to make out a small impact crater at the eastern edge of the Mare Imbrium. It is a circular, bowl-shaped formation with a diameter of about eight kilometers, situated atop a ridge in the Montes Apenninus. Although astronomers say that it is an unremarkable formation with no unusual features, it was named after an aviation pioneer whom some people consider to be the true father of powered flight…


Alberto Santos-Dumont was born in Brazil in the year 1873, the heir of a wealthy family which had made a fortune with a coffee plantation in the state of Minas Gerais. As a child, Alberto was exposed to the latest mechanical innovations which his father, a brilliant engineer, would introduce to the coffee production process in order to save on labor and transportation costs. Thus Alberto became fascinated with machinery and, thanks to his extensive readings of Jules Verne and his observations of hot air balloons at local country fairs, he dreamed that one day he would fly his own aircraft.

At the age of eighteen, Alberto went to Paris, France, to live and study. He soon started taking his first balloon rides as a passenger, but quickly learned to pilot balloons and before long was flying balloons designed by himself. As he was unhappy with the fact that these balloons could not be governed and went wherever the wind would take them, Alberto quickly moved on to designing dirigible balloons kept afloat with hydrogen and powered with gasoline engines, building eleven different models between the years 1898 and 1905. He became so fascinated with this form of transportation that he actually kept a small dirigible tied to a gas lamp post in front of his Paris apartment and would use it to glide along the boulevards to go shopping, visit friends or to literally drop in at his favorite restaurants.

He went on to win numerous awards and prizes and his achievements made him famous in Europe and around the world. In 1904 he was invited to the White House to meet President Theodore Roosevelt.

Having come to the conclusion that flight by dirigible was too expensive and impractical, Alberto’s attention turned to heavier-than-air aircraft and by the end of 1905 he had designed his first airplane. On the 23rd of October, 1906, Santos-Dumont flew his airplane, which he had named 14-bis, before a large crowd of witnesses, which included officials from the Aéro-Club de France. This flight gave birth to a controversy which continues to this day, as some recognize it as the first true powered flight in the world, in contrast to the flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk which took place three years earlier, but which some claim required the use of a catapult to make the airplane airborne.
In the opinion of many people, this disqualifies the attempt by the Wright brothers because their aircraft did not take off from the ground by its own means, although this claim is hotly disputed by others.

Be it as it may, Santos-Dumont continued improving on his first design and built a total of twenty-two different aircraft types, the last of which was the Demoiselle monoplane, a very efficient and lightweight aircraft which could be built in only fifteen days.

He also had the merit of popularizing the use of wristwatches by men in the early 20th century. Having once complained to his friend Louis Cartier that he could not check his flight time with his pocket watch while handling the controls of his airplane, Cartier promptly developed a wristwatch which to this day bears the name of the Brazilian pioneer.

Alberto Santos-Dumont was a dreamer and an idealist during his entire life. He was so convinced that aviation would bring prosperity to all of humanity that he allowed his designs to be freely copied and distributed around the world. In the years leading to the First World War, a serious illness and the realization that airplanes were being used for military purposes brought him to a state of depression from which he never recovered and which would lead him to his death in 1932.

Nevertheless, there is comfort in the fact that his legacy is assured by a crater on the moon which bears his name…

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN & Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives

Author: Giovanni Gregorat