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Entrepreneurs, STEM

America Has The Wright Brothers and Brazil has Santos-Dumont

Rio-2016-JCRedeemerLike so many other folks in the U.S. and around the world, I’ve been keeping up with the medals count but have only managed to watch a few of the sporting events of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this week. I did, however, carve out time for the opening ceremony on last Friday evening, August 5, 2016.  The creators of the opening ceremony did not disappoint in capitalizing on two of Brazil’s greatest strengths — its dazzling culture and flair!

The opening ceremony included story telling that touched on the most significant  highlights of Brazil’s history that was choreographed with music, dance, and over 6,000 volunteers.  The arrival of the Portuguese by ship, the introduction of slavery, the arrival of Arab and Japanese people as a part of an immigration boom , and the growth of mega cities like Rio and Sao Paulo were all captured by the viewing audience.. As a part of the story telling, some of Brazil’s famous citizens through the years were also highlighted including famous supermodel Giselle Bundchen strutting to The Girl from Ipanema.

“So far, so good,” I say to myself.  I’m enjoying the program and the woven history up to the point when Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show forewarned viewers that in South America, a Brazilian is credited with having invented the airplane. I learned forward with brows furrowed. Hmmmm…..I along with so many other Americans have only known of the Wright Brothers invention that dates back to December 16, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, NC.

As the program continued, the actor who had been cast to fly a replica of the famed 14 Bis that was invented by Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont rises out of the stadium and takes a short flight around the local area. Camera drones did an amazing job of capturing the flight as well as an aerial view of the stadium and the local neighborhood.  I make a mental note to do some fact checking on one Alberto Santos-Dumont, the topic of this post.

Here some background notes:

Early Years – Brazil-France Connection:

  • Santos-Dumont was born on July 20, 1873, in the village of Cabangu, State of Minas Gerais.
  • His father, Henrique Dumont, an engineer of French descent, was the manager of a coffee plantation. Through efficient farming practices, he was able to purchase his own land and accumulated a large fortune. He was later dubbed as the Coffee King of Brazil.
  • An accident in 1891 left Henrique Dumont injured and partially paralyzed. He sold his plantation and moved to Europe looking for better medical treatment. His wife and son, Alberto, traveled to Europe with him.
  • This laid the groundwork for Santos-Dumont’s arrival in Paris.

Replica of Santos-Dumont’s BIS 14 air plane. (Source: Wikipedia)


  • Santos Dumont arrived with his parents in Paris in 1891. The family returned to Brazil in 1892 when Henrique Dumont’s health took a turn for the worse. He subsequently returned to Paris after his father’s death on August 30, 1892.
  • He studied chemistry, physics, astronomy and mechanics. His family’s fortunes enabled his study abroad.

Aviation Work: Spherical Balloons (Source: Smithsonian Education)

  • Santos-Dumont first experimented with spherical balloons or dirigibles that had increasing lifting capacity. His second balloon, America, reached a greater altitude than 11 other competitors in a contest. It remained in the air for 22 hours.
  • Next, the focus of his work turned to better steering mechanisms for balloons.
  • Santos-Dumont won the first ever “Deutsch Prize” to be awarded to the balloonist who, taking off from Saint-Cloud, circumnavigated the Eiffel Tower and returned to the starting point in less than thirty minutes on October 19, 1901.
  • Once he solved the problem of steering the lighter-than-air vehicle, Santos-Dumont devoted himself to the heavier-than-air problem.

Most persons familiar with engineering design and manufacturing know that hundreds if not thousands of people may have an idea about how to conquer a problem or that next big thing. However, a half-dozen to at best two dozen of those folks are able to conceptualize an idea and possibly sketch a preliminary design. Of this second group, it’s usually less than five, sometimes just one or two that will take the time and effort to develop a design that can be scaled-up for manufacturing.

That was certainly the case with the spherical balloons that Santos-Dumont worked on, and also true for the heavier than air problem that proved to be a major inhibitor to flight. Since most people recognized the advantages of air transport, it also should be noted that there was a hot race around the world to get the first powered aircraft aloft. [Ref 1]

Given the above information, here’s what is known about the airplane’s inventors:

  • On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft. The Wright brothers are credited with having invented the first successful airplane. (Source: Wikipedia)
  • Santos-Dumont’s airplane design, the 14-BIS, made its first unsuccessful attempt to fly in July 1906, however, it was on November 12th, 1906 that the 14 BIS flew a distance of 220 meters at the height of 6 meters and at the speed of 37,358 km/h. The “Archdecon Prize” was awarded to Santos Dumont, who had thus, solved the problem of making a heavier-than-air machine that could take off by its own means. [Source: The Smithsonian Museum]

Replica of Santos-Dumont’s BIS 14 air plane. (Source: Wikipedia)

It should be noted that Santos-Dumont piloted his airplane before a large crowd in Paris. His famous flight in 1906 was the first to be certified by the Aero-Club-de France – the group that awarded the Deutsch-Archdeacon Prize for the first officially observed flight of more than 25 meters.  By then the Wright Brothers had already flown their Wright Flyer III for over half an hour. Their flight, however, was not officially recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.

CNN weighed in on this topic back in 2003 [Ref 2] saying that the debate of who was first comes down to how you define the first flight of an airplane. Some argue that the Wright Brothers made a hop, whereas Santos-Dumont’s airplane actually made a flight. Peter Jakab, chairman of the aeronautics division at the National Air and Space Museum states “By the time Santos-Dumont got around to his maiden flight the Wright brothers had already flown numerous times, including one trip in which they flew 24 miles (39 km) in 40 minutes.”

The American Institute for Architects notes that Santos-Dumont visited the United States in 1904. He was invited to the White House to meet President Theodore Roosevelt, who was very interested in the possible use of dirigibles in naval warfare. Although Santos-Dumont and the Wright Brothers had heard of each other’s aviation work, they never met.

Santos-Dumont’s role in aviation history is not up for questioning. Even the First Flight Society’s shrine at Kitty Hawk inducted Santos-Dumont into its Hall of Fame. An inscription notes:“First to fly a heavier-than-air machine in Europe.” and that he was the “Third man in all the world to fly a powered aircraft.”

Therefore, 110+ years later, we can agree that America has the Wright Brothers and Brazil has Santos-Dumont.

Reference Sources:

  1. Were the Wright brothers really first? Not in Brazil, by Charles Cooper, July 19, 2013, http://www.cnet.com/news/were-the-wright-brothers-really-first-not-in-brazil/
  2. Was the airplane’s inventor Brazilian?, CNN Technology, Wednesday, December 10, 2003, http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/ptech/12/10/brazil.santosdumont.reut/

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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