On this day: Alberto Santos-Dumont, legendary aeronaut


Alberto Santos-Dumont
Alberto Santos Dumont fthe Eiffel Tower

On September 7, 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont successfully flew his heavier-than-air 14-bis aircraft for the first time. Two great controversies swirl around the legacy of the Brazilian aviation pioneer. Was his the first flight in the history of aviation — and was he gay?

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s father owned a Brazilian coffee plantation with 4 million coffee trees, 6,000 workers and over 60 kilometres of private railway track. By the age of 7, young Alberto could drive a train. But he also took an interest in the mechanics of trains, coffee machines and other mechanical devices, probably inspired by his father, a college-educated engineer.

The books of Jules Verne inspired an interest in the then futuristic concept of air travel from a young age. Also, by twelve, Alberto displayed the ‘refined manners’ which became a noted characteristic in adulthood and lead to speculation about his sexuality.

Alberto’s father suffered a serious accident during his son’s nineteenth year. Learning he did not have long to live, he sold up and divided the family fortune between his children.

Make a man of yourself

His father told Alberto to use his share to ‘make a man out of himself’.

Alberto Santos-Dumont
Young Alberto

 

Alberto Santos-Dumont moved to Paris and undertook studies in physics, chemistry, astronomy, electricity, and mechanics. He bought a car, and then a motor-tricycle and entered road races.

In 1898, he took his first balloon flight. He was hooked. Alberto built a series of balloons, making over 200 flights in the first. In another, he stayed airborne, sometimes at high altitudes, for over 22 hours.

Undeterred by the numerous scrapes with death flying entailed, Alberto progressed to airships. He built a series of enormous dirigibles, making numerous innovations and advancing knowledge of aeronautics.

Alberto Santos-Dumont was by now world famous. Magazines printed lavishly-illustrated features detailing his exploits. On a trip to the US, the president received him at the White House and he visited Thomas Edison’s laboratories. On visits home to Brazil, he was hailed as a national hero.

Parisians paid homage by elevating Alberto’s dress style — his high-collared shirts and signature Panama hat — to high fashion. When Louis Cartier designed a wristwatch to save the aeronaut pulling his stopwatch out of his pocket to check the time, wristwatches, previously worn only by women, became standard male attire.

 

Alberto Santos-Dumont
Alberto Santos-Dumont visiting the Eiffel Tower

 

Heavier-than-air flight

However, in 1904, Albert Santos-Dumont took on his greatest challenge — heavier-than-air flight. Men previously flew in gliders, balloons and airships. But for aviation to be a practical means of transport, controllable, self-powered vehicles were needed.

With lucrative prizes on offer for the first person to achieve proven heavier-than-air flight, competition became fierce.

In 1906, Alberto made a number of test flights in his  14-bis plane, including the one on September 7.

Then, on October 23, Alberto Santos-Dumont flew his plane 60 metres without the use of headwinds, ramps, catapults, slopes, or other devices and after taking off solely by the aircraft’s own means. He also undertook the flight in view of a large crowd including officials who could certify the flight.

Europeans believed at the time that no one else had managed the same feat. But in the US, the Wright brothers had been making experimental flights. While the Wrights often used a catapult to assist take-off, they also succeeded in controlled, sustained flights without the use of the device from as early as 1903.

However, the brothers were always reticent to allow anyone but themselves to photograph their flights and that invited scepticism. Unlike Alberto who shared every new innovation, the Wrights fiercely protected their secrets in hope of a future financial windfall.

Debate continues to rage over who deserves accolades for the first heavier-than-air flight.

Was Alberto Santos-Dumont gay?

Debate also rages over Alberto’s sexuality. The lifelong bachelor never showed any inclination to marry even in the face of media beat-ups about young heiresses queuing up to wed him.

The Brazilian activist Luiz Mott received death threats in the 1990s for describing the national hero as gay. So, what do we know?

Alberto became a household name within a few years of the prosecution of Oscar Wilde. Even in 1902, German industrialist Friedrich Alfred Krupp committed suicide when newspapers exposed him as gay. Gay men fled to refuge in places like Capri or adopted low profiles given the atmosphere of the time.

Around the same time, Alberto Santos-Dumont reportedly burned his diaries and private letters.

There are rumours of a hushed-up scandal in 1901 over an affair with Georges Goursat, the gay French caricaturist known as Sem. The openly gay French poet Jean Lorrain described Alberto as Sem’s ‘little bird’. (Alberto was diminutive and he could fly.)

Alberto Santos-Dumont
A caricature of Alberto by his rumoured lover, Sem.

 

The aeronaut’s family, along with many other Brazilians, deny the aeronaut was gay and claim he was too devoted to flying to worry about such things. Others say people assume too much from Alberto’s keen sense of style. He was famously particular about his appearance.

One of his biographers claimed Alberto “remained a virgin for a lifetime.”

The author then helpfully provided a list of other lifetime virgins including a Catholic priest 😁, Leonardo da Vinci (charged with sodomy in an incident involving a notorious male sex worker in 1478) and a couple of married men.

Retirement and death

By 1909, Alberto had aged noticeably. He began to tire easily and developed a deep depression. Some attribute his illness to multiple sclerosis but others dispute the diagnosis, pointing to limited known symptoms and a continued active lifestyle.

However, after an accident in one of his planes in 1910, he closed his workshop and became a recluse.

The outbreak of World War I saw aircraft used in warfare for observation of enemy troops and in aerial combat.

Alberto always saw aviation as a way of bringing humanity together. The use of planes to kill people distressed him immensely.

In 1931, after receiving treatment at various European sanitoriums, he returned home to Brazil with his nephew. On the trip home, he tried to end his life, as he had on previous occasions in France.

In Brazil, the pair settled at a hotel in Guarujá but soon after, revolution broke out and planes passed overhead on bombing raids.

A distressed Alberto spoke to a friend on the phone.

“My God! My God! Is there no way to avoid the bloodshed of brothers? Why did I make this invention which, instead of contributing to the love between men, turns into a cursed weapon of war?

“I am horrified by these airplanes that are constantly passing over.”

Alberto Santos-Dumont died by suicide within weeks.

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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