Santos Dumont and the Origins of Aviation

The history of aviation is a fascinating one, spanning more than two thousand years starting from kites and tower jumping. Many hackers are also aviation fans, and the name of Alberto Santos Dumont may be familiar, but if not, here we talk about his role and accomplishments in the field. Santos Dumont is one of the few aviation pioneers that made contributions in both balloons, airships and heavier-than-air aircraft.

From Lighter to Heavier Than Air Machines

631px-santos-dumont_flight_around_the_eiffel_towerSantos Dumont was the youngest son of a wealthy coffee producer in Brazil. From his earliest years he was fascinated by the machinery of the coffee plantation; steam tractors, locomotives and other equipment. Following this passion he was set to Paris at the age of eighteen to studied physics, chemistry and electricity and soon became interested in hot air balloons and airships.

This interest blossomed and Santos Dumont built many balloons. His first, the Bresil, was quite a remarkable design. It was very small and lightweight compared to other designs of the time (113 m3 compared to 750 m3 for a standard design) but showed a lot of promise for the young inventor.

He started to work on steerable balloons and airships. The “Santos Dumont No. 1” ascended on September 18th, 1898. The “No. 2” was an unsuccessful experiment, but the “No. 3” was a complete success, circling the Eiffel tower and landing flawlessly in Bagatelle field.

From that triumph, his interests moved to powered flight. He owned a motorized tricycle, and like any good hacker he scavenged it for his first powered balloon. That was “No. 4”, the proof of concept which resulted in the more powerful “No. 5” that he built in an unsuccessful attempt to win an aviation prize. But persistence paid off and in October 19, 1901, Santos Dumont won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize with his “No. 6” airship, flying from the Parc de Saint Cloud, around the Eiffel Tower and back in under 30 minutes.

Once he mastered how to steer lighter-than-air aircraft, Santos Dumont turned his attention to airplanes. He built an unsuccessful monoplane in 1905, and also a helicopter with rotors made of varnished silk stretched over a bamboo framework and powered by a 25 hp Antoinette engine. It is remarkable that, at his second attempt at building an airplane, Santos Dumont succeeded. He took the nacelle of his No. 14 airship, and added biplane wings, fuselage, and an Antoinette 24 hp, v8 engine. The resulting canard (tail forward) biplane was named “14-bis”. The first, unsuccessful flight showed that the machine was underpowered, so he changed the engine to a more powerful one, with 40 hp. Then he made the first flight of around ten meters, damaging the airplane on landing. After repairing, he flew his “14-bis” airplane, and won the Aero-Club de France prize for the first officially observed flight of over 100 m (330 ft) on November 12 1906. The 14-bis performed the first powered flight made anywhere outside of the United States.

Santos Dumont’s 14-bis flying machine. By Jules Beau, via Wikimedia Commons.

He built a couple more machines, the “No. 15” and “No. 17”, and even a propeller-driven hydroplane. But it wasn’t until 1907 that he built his masterpiece, the Demoiselle, shown in the feature image at the top of this article. It was an elegant and lightweight monoplane machine, with an open frame fuselage made of bamboo. The pilot wore a special suit connected to the control stick. By leaning to the left or right, the wings warped and acted as ailerons, thus banking the aircraft while in flight. This is just one of many methods in aircraft design that were tested, before standardized methods of control were developed.

Santos-Dumont released the drawings of Demoiselle for free, and they were published in the June 1910 edition of Popular Mechanics. The author said that “This machine is better than any other which has ever been built, for those who wish to reach results with the least possible expense and with a minimum of experimenting.”

First Flight Controversy with the Wright Brothers

Catapult and launching rail used by the Wright brothers. Image from

While the Wrights are widely considered as the inventors of the first successful airplane, there is still controversy about the first powered flight, with at least six “significant claims” known to date. Some say that the Wrights did not invent the airplane, but “only” controlled powered flight — a point that showed up in the comments of our recent article about the Wright Brothers’ methods. Their main breakthrough was the three-axis control (roll, pitch and yaw).

Regarding the flights of Santos Dumont, it is frequently stated that the Wright brothers used a rail and catapult system to launch their flying machines, as opposed to the Santos Dumont airplane that used wheels. In fact, the first airplane from the Wrights that used wheels instead of skids was the”Model B” from 1910. Of course, using wheels instead of skids can be considered a minor technicality; more important is the use of a catapult system to launch the airplane, however the Wright brothers made a lot of flights using the rails as a guiding system only, with the airplane taking off using its own power only, well before the 1906 flight by Santos Dumont.

In 1904, Santos Dumont was invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, who was interested in the use of dirigibles in naval warfare. Interestingly, Santos Dumont and the Wright brothers never met, even though they had heard of each other’s work.

Final Years

Santos Dumont is sometimes credited as the inventor of the wristwatch. The truth is that he was a friend of Louis Cartier, and told him about the difficulty to check his pocket watch while in dumont-1910-1flight, that conversation lead to the first pilot wristwatch, which Santos Dumont wore every time he flew. Since he was already a celebrity in Europe, the public soon noticed the watch. At the time only women used wristwatches, but Santos Dumont made them popular among men too. Cartier still has a line of Santos Dumont watches.

Santos Dumont retired from aviation in 1910, suffering multiple scleroris and experiencing depression over the use of aircraft in warfare. He moved to France in 1911 and was accused of spying for the Germans. Deeply depressed by the incident, he burned all his papers and plans. He returned to Brazil in 1931, and hanged himself a year later. His contributions to aviation are his legacy to mankind.

54 thoughts on “Santos Dumont and the Origins of Aviation

  1. “” Santos-Dumont released the drawings of Demoiselle for free, and they were published in the June 1910 edition of Popular Mechanics. The author said that “This machine is better than any other which has ever been built, for those who wish to reach results with the least possible expense and with a minimum of experimenting.” “”

    Yup, if I were to want to build the minimal possible flying machine given random motor and readily available materials today, it would pretty much be a copy of a Demoiselle.

  2. Appropriate descriptive words of a flying machines that do not carry people are ‘toy’ and ‘drone’. Appropriate descriptive words of people-carrying machines that do not have reliable control systems are ‘useless’, ‘death-traps’ and ‘flying coffins’. You need both attributes to more appropriately match the modern colloquial use of the word ‘airplane’.

    A major difference between the Wrights and many of the historical challengers is the way they went about solving the problem and their level of process documentation. They did quite a bit to advance modern engineering discipline outside of their lighter than air achievements.

    1. It’s a real shame that Santos Dumont burned his papers but enough is known about his step-by-step process for developing his airships to make an R&D tale as interesting as that of the Wrights.

    2. I hope you are aware that you choose your definition in order to come to your foregone conclusion – in other words using the begging-the-question fallacy. Wrights airplanes aren’t what we now call airplanes – they used other ways to control flight (and there are valid arguments that they didn’t make the first fully controlled flight), they were useless for anything but playing (short flights etc.).

      1. Does every one of these historical posts have to descend into an exercise in revisionism in the comments? Guess what? Except for a very small minority of people with other axes to grind, the question of primacy in any area that far back is a hollow one. History books are not going to be changed, and even if they were in the long run it make zero difference. Most major technologies and the inventions that underpin them grew by incremental degrees anyway, with any number of contributors along the way and attempts to pinpoint the moment when they began to develop in earnest is moot, and that is true across domains. Can’t we just celebrate all of those that built these great edifices as a group, and not bicker about who did what and when especially given how far in the past these events occurred?

        1. It’s a question that often comes up in discussion about who’s got the best system of society, and the Americans usually pull off some variation of “We invented everything you can think of so we are the best. Period.”

          You can understand the frustration when you take a look at Trump.

          1. And you don’t remember the endless propaganda coming out of the USSR during the Cold War where the Russians invented everything? That’s the point I was making: this is an issue only among those with an agenda. I find it tiresome because it obscures an appreciation of of the efforts each of the pioneers in these various fields and of their contributions. In the long run these sorts of debates play to the tune of people that are frankly beneath us as a group.

          2. >”And you don’t remember the endless propaganda coming out of the USSR during the Cold War where the Russians invented everything? ”

            Of course, but nobody took that seriously because it was plain obvious that they were just making it up as they went along. Lysenkoism, “you’re hanging negroes”, etc. was more of a joke than anything.

            “(Radio Yerevan): we have been asked, how many Russian citizens are living in Finland? Our answer: enough to hold a referendum.”

          3. The Radio Yerevan jokes btw. are a good reminder of what a double reality the SU was. In comparison the US is still living the dream.

            (RY): “We are asked: “The tea in our institution cafeteria is always bitter, yet the waiter claims to have added the regulation amount of sugar. What should we do?” – Our answer. “Try spinning the spoon anticlockwise.””

            (RY): “We are asked: “It is said the Soviet agriculture is the world leader because it produces four harvests a year. Is this true?” – Our answer. “In principle this is true. The first harvest is obtained from Russia, the second from Poland, the third from Czechoslovakia, and the fourth from Hungary.””

            (RY): “We are asked: “Is it true that in the final stage of the communist society, money will not exist?” – Our answer. “This question has no ultimate answer; according to one theory money will be in use even then. According to another, money will go unused. It is also perfectly possible to arrive at a compromize between the two where in the ultimate communist society, some have money while others don’t.””

          4. The point being that we should not stoop to such nonsense here in these pages. This sort of thing plays well among the unwashed by making them believe that they are exceptional because of the creative successes of others because the share membership with them in some arbitrary and artificially defined group.

          5. You don’t need the Americans for that. The English, the French, the Germans, the Russians all have made that game. Nowadays you can walk in Beijing and buy some magazines in mandarin that claim that the Eiffel tower was designed by a Chinese, the electric bulb invented by a Chinese and that Einstein got his idea for relativity after a conversation with a Chinese…

          6. I think the frustration existed well before Trump showed up. And might very well explain Trump, as well as the earlier Brexit. Now lets get back to fighting who invented the airplane, the electric light or radio.

        2. The most interesting thing about the time was the spectacular failures. My favorite was the Hiram Maxim airplane that had a wingspan that matched the Wrights first flight. It’s propellers were nearly as big as the Wright airplane. And he crashed once and then quit. Langley had much more funding and access to other smart people; his motor produced over 100hp and was light enough to carry (neglecting the steam generator) but he didn’t bother asking anyone with a structural background, including Octave Chanute, who was contacting everyone.

          I’ll let others look for info on Langley all their own. I’m impressed with Maxim’s ability to think big.

      2. “Wrights airplanes aren’t what we now call airplanes – they used other ways to control flight (and there are valid arguments that they didn’t make the first fully controlled flight), they were useless for anything but playing (short flights etc.).”

        Well, perhaps you would care to elaborate on such statement.

        The Wright brothers controlled pitch, roll and yaw with elevator, wing warping (precursor of ailerons) and rudder respectively, just like what “we now call airplanes” do. In fact it was the Wright brothers who introduced a movable rudder to control the aircraft in response to adverse yaw, which they identified and reported.

        Also, what are then the criteria for the definition of “airplane” ? What are the minimum flight time, height, distance… of sustained controlled flight required for the flying craft to be called an airplane?

        1. Dumont’s airplanes used an all moving control surface, unable to move elevator and rudder independently, whether mounted in the front or the back. Looks like it was difficult to move for just pitch or just yaw without affecting the other.

          The only modern planes close to that method are the Beechcraft planes with a V tail where pitch and yaw movements have to be mixed with two angled control surfaces.

          The Wright’s 1903 plane made more than one flight on its first (and only) day of use. It met the definition of powered flight by rising above the altitude of its starting point. If a strong gust of wind hadn’t damaged it, they would have flown it more and worked more on it to improve it.

          Instead of that, they went back to Ohio with what they’d learned from the 1903 Flyer and built a new, improved version that was more stable and easier to control. Even discounting 1903, the flights in 1904 still put the Wrights first.

          Trying to “prove” someone else did it first goes back to when Samuel P. Langley and the Smithsonian had Glenn Curtiss rebuild the wrecked Aerodrome, and make major alterations to it so it could make a pitiful short hop. The Aerodrome had no wing controls and even after Curtiss redesigned it, was still pretty much uncontrollable. The Smithsonian then put it on display as the “first” airplane.

          Why go to the effort? To try to break the Wright’s patents. It was the same “No way that little guy is going to make money off an invention I want!” attitude that had RCA trying to steal the rights (and credit) for all electronic television from Philo Farnsworth. Like Langley, Curtiss and the Smithsonian, RCA lost – but also won in a way because the inventors who deserved to profit while their patents were in force came away with little for their efforts. They spent their time and money in legal battles instead of improving and profiting from their inventions.

        2. “In fact it was the Wright brothers who introduced a movable rudder to control the aircraft in response to adverse yaw, which they identified and reported. ”

          They didn’t. That was already patented in England before the Wrights were even born.

          1. More precisely, it was sir George Caley in 1804 who demonstrated the first model glider with a tail which had an adjustable rudder although it was not controlled in-flight because it was unmanned. Another fellow Alphonse Pénaud made rubber string powered models in 1871 again with moveable rudders.

            Most of the early aviators had some sort of vertical fin to keep the contraption heading straight on, and the rudder was the very first thing anyone ever tried to use to steer an aircraft because it was the obvious choice: boats steer by rudder.

            The Wrights are rather credited with noticing that using the rudder to steer also causes roll because one wing goes into the wind faster than the other, and counteracting that roll by other controls, however other inventors working with manned gliders surely had noticed the same effect before them because it’s just what happens when you try to steer any aircraft just by turning the rudder.

  3. All of the claims of first heavier-than-air powered flight are so full of qualifiers that it reminds me of the Maxim ads from the early 2000’s.

    Even when the Wright brothers launched without a catapult, their aircraft still required a headwind.

    1. The Wrights also liked to launch at the crack of dawn just when the updraft thermals started to rise off the ground. If you get the plane up to ground effect and hit a rising thermal, it lifts you up.

      It’s telling that Dumont needed a 40 HP engine to get airborne. The Wrights only gave up the catapult system when they upgraded the engine to 35 HP for the offical demonstration that their plane -can- take off under its own power. But that was in 1908 – two years later than Dumont.

      >”however the Wright brothers made a lot of flights using the rails as a guiding system only, with the airplane taking off using its own power only, well before the 1906 flight by Santos Dumont.”

      And in each of those cases we’re to trust only the brother’s own records with no independent verification. Of course, when you’re skidding down a hillside into the wind, you don’t need a catapult to launch.

    2. The headwind was only because they wanted the track to be shorter. The plane would have lifted off anyway, but building a runway on a beach isn’t a requirement to inventing a fully controllable, heavier-than-air, man carrying, powered airplane. The catapult was used back in Ohio and in France for the same reason – to shorten the rail. It’s the same reason modern aircraft carriers use catapults and try to turn into the wind for aircraft that can take off by themselves; it’s so the ship doesn’t have to be so long.

      1. >”The plane would have lifted off anyway,”

        Would it? That was tested on a re-make of the airplane with the larger engine and other modifications that may or may not have been in place in the original Flyer which claimed the first powered flight.

        The point is that the Wrights most likely had a motor-assisted glider. It didn’t have enough power to lift off and remain airborne on its own, but instead relied on air currents, gusts of wind and thermals, to gain altitude and fly – the motor only assisting in reducing the effective aerodynamic drag of the plane. It most likely had a thrust to drag ratio just slightly under 1 at its liftoff speed, which means it can gain forward speed just up to the point where it would take off, and then a favorable gust of headwind picks it up, and then it glides down a few hundred yards. If it hits a rising air current along the way, like the still air lifting up off an open field after sunrise, it gains more altitude and circles up and up like the birds.

        The distinction seems trivial, but it means they likely did not fly the first powered airplane until they upgraded the engine in 1908. Meanwhile Dumont demonstratably did have the engine power and did fly his airplane in 1906 and had the Demoiselle working in 1907, which was bounds and leaps ahead of the Wrights rickety kite.

        All sorts of speculations of course exist over things like the propeller efficiency, and whether that would have nudged them beyond the margin into powered flight – but that’s all moot because there’s no evidence and the Wrights deliberately destroyed the prototype, so no true reconstruction is possible.

        1. Thank you. It’s really hard do explain this to some people, how was it the first powered flight if they didn’t take off? Give me a catapult big enough and I’ll fly around the world.

          1. The Wrights were estimated to have a peak power around 12 horsepowers if the engine was working just right, which is literally the equivalent of making a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine fly (with a pilot). Even with modern knowledge and materials that is very hard to accomplish. All the other inventors needed around 30-40 HP to fly.

            It’s very unlikely the wrights got it just so right and their engine worked just perfectly that morning – considering they didn’t even have a proper carburettor but were simpy dribbling fuel into a pan on the heated engine block and passing air over it to pick up the fumes, which would have resulted in an uncontrolled A/F ratio. Their documentation mentions lots of engine troubles and rough running.

            The replica engines built to test the flyer however were measured to produce 18 HP on a dynamometer, which gave the replica flyer the edge to lift off and fly.

      1. In Europe the canon is that Wrights did it first – mainly because everybody watches the same US made documentaries that tell the story.

        It’s a Brazilian thing to say Dumont was first.

        Given the evidence I fall on the Brazilian side.

        1. Add that to the fiasco from the 1903 flyer replica that was built in 2003 and failed, of course, since all pilots that tried the simulated model crashed after the first second (source:

  4. “experiencing depression over the use of aircraft in warfare”

    How so? The first military use of aircraft was by the Italians in their war with Turkey. . . in 1911. His depression was due to his illnes..

  5. Santos is one of my HEROS.. Aren’t there more advances awaiting in personal flight?… From the jet pack to LTA lighter than air… Now Elon is tunneling an underground LA CA roadway.. I’d prefer to fly.. There is a most beautiful bronze of Santos with wings in Brazil… lets trip

  6. Such a nice thing to see a fellow Brazilian on worldwide hacker news!. At school in Brazil we learn that Santos Dumont INVENTED the airplane (what I have known for many years now as a fallacy) and the Wright brothers did it right after Dumont (what is also a fallacy).

  7. Oh, I had the watch and almost gave it to a young Nigerian pot smoker, etc., as a Christian present.. I gave it tocharity . In Heaven we’ll regroup.. Peace & Blessings…. Walter Wilson in So Cal USA…

  8. The fact that the Wright Flyer even flew, is besides the point. What they did, was prove scientifically the best shape for a propeller and a wing. Before the Wright Brothers, there was no technical manual on how to design these things. The other thing they achieved, was to build an engine out of aluminum that produced enough horsepower to push a wing through the air fast enough to produce the required lift. Finally, they solved the flight control problems in a satisfactory way.

    The rest, as they say is gravy. They wanted to make money, so they created methods that were patent-able, and could be proprietary long enough so that they could build a mansion and have inside toilets and running water. A real dream.

    The problem was, they went crazy and never enjoyed their achievements into old age. Wilbur should have been the one to live the longest, because Orville was never right after his crash. His treatment of his sister showed how screwed-up he was. The AEA mobsters and Glenn Curtiss pretty much drove him blind crazy.

    But, if you want to talk about some inventor who supposedly flew before the Wrights, the test question is: show us their wind tunnel, engineering logs, and math tables. Only the Wrights have them. If you look at the box wing in the Dumont plane, you can see he had no clue. As they said about the F-4: with enough power, you can make a shoe-box fly.

    1. Thanks for that. Finally, someone who appreciates the fullness of the contribution of the Wrights. I think the major point that EVERYONE has missed here is that they were able to correct the traditionally used coefficients and tables that had lead to their initial failures. They were truly pioneering in not only getting a heavier-than-air craft to fly, but to actually predict with calculation how to make it happen. No one else seems to have such proof of this.

      Everyone else can debate who actually “flew” first, depending on how you define flight. That’s a petty argument. Instead, the focus should be on what all of these pioneers in aviation contributed to modern flight.

    2. Spot on. Before the Wrights Aeronautical Experimenters were just that, rich guys that tried stuff. It was the Wrights that developed a scientific approach to the problems of flight. This lead them step by step to solving and understanding correctly the forces acting on an airplane. That work led to the first controllable 3 axis flight system, a modern aircraft. The Wrights work on propellers alone shows how far ahead they really were. They were able to design a propeller that performed within 1% of theoretical efficiency. That’s hard to better even today. While Santos was “hopping” in his 14bis the Wrights were flying for over an hour at at time, logging many flights over 20 miles. One only has to read the reports of the Wrights 1908 European Tour with the new machine. The Wrights truly invented what we call an airplane.

  9. Every last one of the aforementioned aviators in the above article and comments was a …

    Archimedes was a …

    Leonardo was a …

    Galileo was a …

    Tesla, Ford, Edison, … All Hackers.

    The airplane, cotton gin, canoe, car, sailboat, steam engine, refrigeration…

    There is no subject without a hacker somewhere making it possible.

    Be it at home in the garage, basement, backyard…

    … or at work in the office, lab, backlot, garage, or barn…

    Flute, whistle, training a dog, a parachute, helicopter, kite.

    Every single last invention, innovation, be it from a university lab or dirty garage where the cat-litter box is kept, was built by someone hacking.

    I think the message is a kindly guarded whisper to take yourselves seriously and take the work of others, be it greater or ridiculously lesser than your own and bear these all serious respect, give supportive encouragement, assistance, and full regard. We’re gonna get thousands of times further in an atmosphere of mutual support that we ever will by spewing forth oneupmanship and discouraging wave-off. It takes so little effort to discourage…

    The author leads to you it respectfully and gently.

  10. Tha same with radio, wireless phone and TV. The priest Landell de Moura made a radio (voice wireless transmission) before Marconi and a embrionic TV (a device to transmit images wireless) and a wirelless telephone. Unfortunately Landell de Moura was desaccredited by men without vision and politicians with a bean brain,. The same would happen if Dumont only stay in Brazil

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