Revealed: the man who really invented the aeroplane

Tomorrow marks the centenary of a Brazilian's pioneering flight. By Hugh O'Shaughnessy

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:04

Forget Orville Wright and his brother Wilbur. Start thinking instead of Alberto Santos Dumont, the Brazilian pioneer aviator and the man who really invented the aeroplane

That is the attitude here in Brazil, as the country prepares to celebrate the centenary tomorrow of the world's first powered flight. On the afternoon of 23 October 1906 in Paris, in front of an expert panel from the Aéroclub de France, the son of a coffee magnate from Sao Paulo took to the air in the 14bis, or 14 Mark II, a marvel of bamboo and piano wire.

Leaving the ground under its own power, the contraption wobbled for 60 metres at a height of 3 metres before landing on its undercarriage and coming to a rather graceless halt. It was to modern eyes an ungainly machine whose 24 horsepower motor was at the rear and whose guiding surfaces stuck out in front. Santos Dumont himself stood upright in a basket sited in front of the wings.

The flight was recorded on a film - which still exists - and it was officially certified by the International Aeronautics Federation. It won Santos Dumont the Archdeacon Cup from such rivals, friends and colleagues as Louis Blériot, who three years later was to be the first man to fly the Channel. On 12 November 1906 the Brazilian made a flight that lasted 21.2 seconds and covered 220 metres.

The first flight was witnessed by perhaps a thousand Parisians who went mad with delight as he landed. They had come to love this diminutive and immaculately dressed Brazilian flyer who had arrived with his father in 1891 when still a teenager. He studied engineering in the French capital and in 1898 he built his own first balloon, the Brasil. In 1901 he constructed the dirigible No 6, a sausage-like balloon with a 20hp engine. Rising from Saint-Cloud in the afternoon of 19 October he flew round the Eiffel Tower and landed back at his point of departure in less than 30 minutes. He later went on to produce the Demoiselle, the first plane to be mass-produced in a factory which was able to land in any broad Parisian thoroughfare. But he was hurt in a crash in one in 1910 and never flew again. He was profoundly depressed by the use of aviation in the First World War, left the French forces and retired here in Petropolis, the former summer residence of the Brazilian emperors in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro. He developed multiple sclerosis and hanged himself in 1932 at a seaside resort near Sao Paulo.

One of his friends in Paris was Louis Cartier. Santos Dumont had to have both hands free for the controls yet at the same time he had to keep an eye on the time. So he persuaded Cartier to produce a watch you could strap to your wrist, a novel procedure at the time. The rectangular Santos watch sold in fabulous quantities and is still one of the company's best-selling lines.

Given Santos Dumont's proven and well-documented success in the air, the claims put forward by the Wright Brothers to have invented the aeroplane look suspiciously weak. There is only one photograph of their machine supposedly taken on its first flight on 17 December 1903. The picture demonstrates that Flyer had an engine of only 12hp and no undercarriage to facilitate an independent take off. Of the handful of spectators who were supposed to have been present many were employees of the Wrights' bicycle shop. As late as 1939 the US National Aeronautic Association was admitting that the Wrights' flight did not take place till 1908.

On 17 December 2003 a replica of the Flyer was to be launched in North Carolina in front of President Bush and thousands of spectators. Sadly it crashed and broke up in the mud before take-off. Not for nothing are the Wright Brothers often referred to in the industry as the Wrong Brothers.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy is writing a life of Santos Dumont to be published by Signal Books next year

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