In which G.M. Norton marvels at a true showman.
My five year old daughter is currently learning about what’s in the sky, different ways to travel by air and the weather. While brushing our teeth one morning this week, she told me that the Wright Brothers were the first people to ever fly an aeroplane. Naturally, I shared a story about a Brazilian chap by the name of Alberto Santos-Dumont.
An aviation pioneer like the Wright Brothers, in my opinion, Santos-Dumont was much more fun.
Santos-Dumont was the son of a rich coffee plantation owner. A keen engineer and inventor, he made all manner of labour-saving devices for his father’s business, while dreaming of flying through the sky.
A dapper playboy, Santos-Dumont spent much of his time in Paris, which seems to suit his flamboyant character. It was in Paris that his aviation conquests came to life. He designed his own hot air balloon before moving onto constructing his own airships. The pinnacle of his career came when he scooped the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize for the first flight from the Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back, in less than thirty minutes.
Typically, upon winning, he vowed to give away his prize to the poor people of Paris.
On the back of his successful flying exploits, Santos-Dumont earned himself celebrity status and no doubt dined out on his success.
I’ve read that Santos-Dumont had a small, light aircraft that was basically his car for rolling around Paris. He parked it off his third floor apartment and flew out to go to dinner or to visit his tailor. Some reports from the time said he parked over his favourite cafe, lowered a rope ladder and climbed down to sip coffee and socialise before he ascended aloft and again flew around the city and countryside of France.
Today in Brazil, Santos-Dumont remains a national hero, who dispute that it was really Santos-Dumont and not the Wright Brothers, that made the world’s first flight by airplane.