The Race for Flight

The Story of Alberto Santos-Dumont, Europe's Air-Ship Architect

Alberto Santos-Dumont, age 33 in 1906

hide captionAlberto Santos-Dumont, age 33 in 1906.

Hyperion Press
Santos-Dumont soaring above Paris rooftops in his 'No. 9' dirigible

hide captionSantos-Dumont soaring above Paris rooftops in his "No. 9" dirigible.

Hyperion Press
Book cover for 'Wings of Madness'

hide captionBook cover for Wings of Madness by Paul Hoffman (Hyperion 2003)

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In late November, 1903, the Wright Brothers were holed up in a shack on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, working out the kinks on what would soon become the world's first powered flyer. But across the Atlantic, a 30-year-old Brazilian was sitting in his impeccably appointed apartment in Paris, writing an autobiography titled My Air-Ships.

Although little known in the United States, Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932) was the toast of Europe at the time, called by some "The Napoleon of the Air." When the Wright Brothers were just getting ready to make their first flight, Santos-Dumont had already built a personal flying machine. Beginning in 1898, he regularly flew above the rooftops of Paris in his dirigibles.

But in the early winter of 1903, the Brazilian aeronautical pioneer had yet to experiment with winged flyers like the Wrights. His first experience with flight was on a balloon in 1897. He immediately became obsessed with the possibility of controlling a balloon with a motorized engine and set to work on his "air-ships" — a numbered series of motor-driven dirigibles. His first successful flight — albeit brief — was in 1898.

In 1903, Santos-Dumont took up the challenge of heavier-than-air flight. In the second part of Weekend Edition's series on rivals to the Wright Brothers, NPR's Liane Hansen talks to Paul Hoffman, author of Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight.

Over the next few years, Santos-Dumont developed a monoplane that was successful. Europeans, mostly unaware of the Wright Brothers' flights, dubbed Santos-Dumont "the conqueror of the air." For a time, he refused to believe the Wrights had beaten him.

A romantic and idealist at heart, Santos-Dumont wasn't looking to make money and wanted everyone on earth to have their own personal flying machine, says Hoffman. Santos-Dumont was also distressed by the use of aircraft for military purposes in World War I. These feelings contributed to his increasing difficulties with mental illness.

Throughout the 1920s, the inventor battled mental illness, voluntarily checking into several sanitoriums. He committed suicide in 1932. There was a huge outpouring of emotion, and at the moment he was interred, thousands of pilots around the world tipped the wings of their planes in a final gesture of respect.

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