Alberto Santos-Dumont

Pioneer Aviator, 1873-1932

Santos-Dumont's portrait hangs by the stairs in his home, now a museum.

Alberto Santos-Dumont was born on July 20, 1873, in the state of Minas Gerais, but grew up in a coffee plantation owned by his family in the state of São Paulo. He was fascinated by machinery and learned to drive the steam tractors and even the locomotive of the plantation train as a child. His father was an engineer and made extensive use of the latest labor-saving inventions in his vast property. Alberto was also a big fan of Jules Verne and had read all his books before his tenth birthday. He says in his autobiography that it was contemplating the magnificent skies of Brazil in the long, sunny afternoons at the plantation that made him first dream of flying in airships and flying machines.

In 1891, Alberto's father had an accident while inspecting some machinery. He fell from his horse and became a paraplegic. He decided then to sell the plantation and move to Europe with his wife and his youngest son. Alberto left the prestigious Escola de Minas in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, for the most exciting city in the world: Paris. At seventeen, Santos-Dumont had money and his interest in mechanics and machines and the first thing he did was to buy an automobile! (Almost gave his mom a heart attack!) Later, he found himself a tutor in physics, chemistry, mechanics and electricity and pursued these studies. He had a dream and an objective: to fly.

In 1898, Santos-Dumont went up in his first balloon. It was round and unusually small and he called it Brésil. Between 1898 and 1905 he build and flew 11 dirigibles. In 1905, he projected his first heavier-than-air craft and also a helicopter, which wasn't possible to build at the time. He had become a celebrity in Europe and had won several prizes and he was a friend to millionaires and royalty. In 1904, he came to the United States and was invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, who was very interested in the possible use of dirigibles in naval warfare. (Every time you see the Goodyear Blimp, by the way, remember that Santos-Dumont had something to do with its existence...) The interesting thing is that Santos-Dumont and the Wright brothers never met, even though they had heard of each other's work.

Santos-Dumont continued to work on dirigibles, but finally achieved his dream of flying in a heavier-than-air craft in October of 1906, when his 14 Bis flew a distance of 60 meters at a height of 2 to 3 meters. As far as the world knew, it was the first airplane flight ever and Santos-Dumont became a hero to the world press. The stories about the Wright brothers flights at Kitty Hawk and later near Dayton, Ohio, were not believed even in the US at the time.

Eventually, after much controversy, the Americans and the world - even though it remains a sore spot for Brazilians, to whom Santos-Dumont is known as the Father of Aviation - accepted that they had indeed flown a heavier-than-air craft before Santos-Dumont. Where he beat them, though, was in his idea of adding the first ailerons to the extremities of the wings. Think of it: aileron is the French diminutive for aile, or wing. And, of course, he never used any contraption or catapult or wooden tracks to push the aircraft or to aid in taking off. So, maybe the Brazilians are right...

This picture was taken at Le Bourget Air Museum in Paris. At the time, this Santos aircraft was under renovation.

Santos-Dumont continued to build and fly airplanes until he fell ill in 1910, with what was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis.

When Santos-Dumont went back to Brazil in 1916, he bought a small lot on the side of a hill in the city of Petrópolis, in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro, and designed this small house full of tricks and imaginative details. The stairs, for instance, are built in such a way that you can only start climbing them with your right foot! It was a place of rest and calm for him.


Alberto Santos-Dumont, seriously ill and despondent, it is said, over the use of aircraft in warfare, committed suicide in the city of Guarujá in São Paulo on July 23, 1932. His numerous and decisive contributions to aviation are his legacy to mankind. This page was designed to honor him and make his story better known to the world. It's unbelievable that a man whose life was so completely devoted to aviation, and who was so famous in his time, is so unknown in the U.S.

Note: Much of the information for this page came from Santos-Dumont, L'obsédé de l'aviation by Sir Peter Wykeham, a French translation of Santos-Dumont, A Study in Obsession. The information on the Santos watch comes from the Cartier Archives in Paris.

Santos-Dumont and The Wristwatch

Louis Cartier invented the wristwatch for his friend, famous aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, in March of 1904. They had met and become good friends in 1900. On October 19, 1901, Santos-Dumont won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize of 100,000 francs for flying his dirigible number six from the Park Saint Cloud to the Tour Eiffel and back under thirty minutes.

His victory was celebrated at Maxim's that evening, and at some point Santos-Dumont complained to Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance. He wanted his friend to come up with an alternative that would permit him to keep both hands on the controls. Louis Cartier went to work on the idea and the result was a watch with a leather band and a small buckle, to be worn on the wrist. Santos-Dumont never took off again without his personal Cartier wristwatch and he used it to check his world record for a 220-meter flight, achieved in just twenty-one seconds, on November 12, 1907.

The new Santos watch was officially introduced on October 20, 1979 at the Paris Air Museum next to the 1908 Demoiselle, the last aircraft Santos-Dumont built.

Little Black Book