History - August 23, 2023

Deciphering the Controversy: Santos Dumont or Wright Brothers – Who Truly Invented the Airplane?

For decades, the history of aviation has been marked by an intriguing dispute: who was the true inventor of the airplane? Three names stand out in this enigma that transcends borders and nationalities: the Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont and the American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. While Brazil proudly claims Santos Dumont as the pioneer, the United States maintains the primacy of the Wright brothers. In this article, we delve into the intricate journey of these inventors to shed light on this historical puzzle.

Santos Dumont: The Father of Brazilian Aviation

Alberto Santos Dumont, born on July 20, 1873, is celebrated by many Brazilians as the national hero who challenged the limits of gravity. On October 23, 1906, he flew the 14-bis, an aircraft of his own creation, in public in the city of Paris. This feat captured the world’s attention and is often considered as the first documented and controlled flight of an airplane.

However, controversy arises regarding the definition of what exactly constitutes an airplane. The 14-bis, while achieving a remarkable flight, lacked many of the elements that define modern aircraft, such as a three-dimensional control system and independent takeoff. This has led some historians to question whether Santos Dumont’s flight fits within established aviation standards.

Wright Brothers: Soaring over the Sands of North Carolina

While Santos Dumont impressed Europeans with his flying machines, the Wright brothers were conducting experiments in Dayton, Ohio, in the United States. On December 17, 1903, the Flyer, an aircraft designed by the brothers, took off from the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and covered a distance of about 40 meters in a considered successful flight.

The Flyer incorporated several essential principles for modern aviation, including control of the three axes (lateral, longitudinal, and vertical) during flight, as well as autonomous takeoff and landing. The meticulous scientific approach of the Wright brothers, combined with rigorous testing and detailed documentation of their achievements, lend remarkable credibility to their claim as aviation pioneers.

The Debate and Recognition

The controversy over who truly invented the airplane continues to resonate among academic, cultural, and political circles. The acknowledgment of both achievements is undeniable; however, it is important to note that the parameters used to define an airplane have evolved over time. Santos Dumont, with his revolutionary contributions, played a crucial role in aviation history, regardless of whether he is considered the inventor of the airplane in its most modern form.

However, in terms of the machine that embodied the fundamental principles of aviation, the Wright brothers have a stronger claim. The Flyer demonstrated three-dimensional control during flight and the essential elements that constitute a modern aircraft.

The Wright brothers’ flight had no filming and few witnesses, whereas Santos Dumont flew over the Eiffel Tower, surrounded by spectators, including journalists and scientists of the time. Another significant factor is that the Brazilian took off and landed without external assistance, whereas the American brothers had the help of a catapult on rails, and the flight path was essentially straight; curves were not attempted.

Ultimately, the history of aviation is a fascinating example of how innovation can emerge from multiple sources and influences. While Brazil proudly celebrates Santos Dumont and the United States honors the Wright brothers, both contributed to one of humanity’s most significant milestones: the ability to fly.

Another curiosity that few know is that the Brazilian was also responsible for popularizing the men’s wristwatch. The “father of aviation,” as he is known in Brazil, intended to time the flight duration of his airplanes during his experiments. He decided to commission his friend, the French jeweler Louis Cartier, to create a model that could be worn on the wrist, making it easier to control the hours.

At that time, men only used pocket watches, attached to a chain, which posed difficulties for Santos Dumont during piloting. The idea of a man wearing a wristwatch was considered strange and amusing at the time since such pieces were more intended for women. But this is another lengthy story that will be told soon, exclusively here on Nona Today.

Here is a special website from the Brazilian Air Force about the 150th anniversary of Santos Dumont’s birth (https://www.fab.mil.br/santosdumont150anos/).

Text credits:By Journalist Flávio Bergmann

photomontage: by Vinícius Pascoal

Lake Nona Golf & Country Club