Bust of Alberto Santos-Dumont

During today’s lunchtime bike ride I happened upon a bronze bust mounted on a wall near the Embassy of Brazil, at the intersection of R and 22nd Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Embassy Row neighborhood.  Upon closer examination I saw a plaque on the bust, which reads:

Alberto Santos-Dumont
First to Fly an Aircraft
Heavier Than Air by Its Own Means
of Propulsion
1906 – 2006
Brazilian Aeronautical Commission
Washington, D.C., Aug 2nd, 2006.

But this didn’t make an sense to me.  I thought everyone knows that the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were the first to fly an aircraft.  So later I researched Alberto Santos-Dumont to find out more about him, as well as the claim made about him on this bust.

Alberto Santos-Dumont was born and died in Brazil where he is honored as the “Father of Aviation” and considered to be the inventor of the airplane. He designed, built, and flew the first practical dirigible balloons and thereby became the 1st to demonstrate that routine, controlled flight was possible. This made him one of the most famous people in the world during the early 20th century.

Santos-Dumont also made the first public European flight of an airplane in Paris on October 23, 1906. That aircraft, designated “Oiseau de proie”, which translates as “bird of prey”, and is considered to be the first to take off, fly, and land without the use of catapults, high winds, launch rails, or other external assistance.  The Wright Brothers’ early aircraft, first successfully flown on December 17, 1903, used a stiff headwind and launch rails.

Much of the controversy about Santos-Dumont and the Wrights arose from the difference in their approaches to publicity.  Santos-Dumont made his flights in public, often accompanied by the scientific elite of the time, then gathered in Paris. In contrast, the Wrights were very concerned about protecting their trade secrets for patentability and made their early flights in remote locations, without many international aviation officials present.  The defense of their flight was further complicated by the jealousies of other aviation enthusiasts and disputes over patents.

In January of 1906, a Frenchman named Ernest Archdeacon sent a taunting letter to the Wrights, demanding that they come to France and prove themselves, but the Wrights did not respond.  Thus, the aviation world, of which Paris was the center at the time, witnessed Santos-Dumont’s work first hand later that year.  As a result, many members, French and other Europeans, dismissed the Wrights as frauds and assigned Santos-Dumont the accolade of the “first to fly.”

After learning about Santos-Dumont, I think he was an inventive and innovative man.  But I still recognize the Wright Brothers as the first to fly.  The launch rail they used simply provided a long, smooth surface for the airplane’s take-off roll, similar to a runway.  So I think attempting to negate the Wright Brothers 1903 flight based on the use of a launch rail lacks substance and was simply an attempt to claim the title of “first.”


    I’ve been following your blog for some time. I live in Belo Horizonte, capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, and spent some very pleasant months in D.C. in 1996, in a post graduation internship at the National Museum of American History. His texts bring back equally pleasant memories.
    About the Wright/Santos Dumont brothers controversy. In fact, most Brazilians are encouraged to believe in the primacy of Santos Dumont over the Wright, and the main argument is the catapult talk.In fact, the aircraft of S.D. (correct name 14-Bis – , since it was developed at the same time as the dirigible balloon number 14) had a landing gear, but it was not exactly an aircraft, since it did not make curves and had no trim controls. In fact, the aircraft of S.D. (correct name 14-Bis – , since it was developed at the same time as the dirigible balloon number 14) had a landing gear, but it was not exactly an aircraft, since it did not make curves and had no balance controls. The Wright’s did all that. The year after the flight from Paris, S.D. developed a fully functional aircraft, for a single person, capable of flying fully, with great autonomy, even taking off and landing in very short spaces. This aircraft was called Demoiselle, it was very easy to fly and could be built in a garage. Popular Mechanics magazine published the plans, if I am not mistaken, in 1910, and today there are at least 200 copies of it built between 1910 and 1914.
    But the first functional flight was actually performed by Wright.Not even S.D.’s biographer credits him with the primacy of flight heavier than air.

    Liked by 1 person

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