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Santos-Dumont, Alberto (1873-1932)  
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Santos's airplanes took off and landed under their own power, while many of the Wright brothers' flights (though not the famous one of December 17, 1903) at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina had to be launched into the air by a catapult. Thus, many aviation historians credit Santos as the inventor of the airplane.

Santos again commanded public acclaim with his Demoiselle ("Little Lady") model monoplanes, Nos. 19, 20, 21, and 22, in which he flew to visit friends' distant chateaux and set records for speed and distance.

Sponsor Message.

Unlike other aviation pioneers, including the Wright brothers, who conducted their research in secrecy (and even the December 17, 1903 flight was only revealed to the public two years after it had occurred) and who patented each step, Santos distributed the blueprints and plans of his aircrafts to the public and allowed them to be published in Popular Mechanics, thus exhibiting the same generosity seen when he distributed the proceeds of the Deutsch prize to others.

Regarding them as a contribution to the cause of peace, Santos never patented his inventions. He hoped that air travel would help unite mankind and usher in a period of unprecedented prosperity. The open-source technology that Santos pioneered formed the template for over 200 similar aircraft subsequently patented with minor alterations, including that of German aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker.

On September 18, 1909, Santos made his last flight in his small, simple, and light Demoiselle, which had become the first aircraft in history to be copied and serially produced. He bid farewell with outstretched arms to his admiring Parisian public.

Aesthete and Dandy

Whereas the Wright brothers apparently lived conventional Midwestern lives (though like Santos they never married), the Brazilian pioneer lived the life of a fin-de-siècle Parisian aesthete, always dressed to the nines and impeccably mannered, as if in open imitation of J.-K. Huysmans' notorious homosexual hero des Esseintes and Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray. His mode of dress and flamboyant demeanor constituted the visible, acknowledged signs of the dandy and the decadent.

Santos's flair for offhand, casually outrageous aerial stunts--such as mooring his airship outside his downtown Paris apartment, or hosting an "Aerial Dinner Party" where the guests all sat on stools twelve feet high, drinking absinthe--made him the toast of Parisian society and a beloved hero of the people.

In keeping with the aviator's practical needs as well as his habitually elegant clothing (always including a starched high collar and straw boater), jeweler Louis Cartier designed for him a watch to be worn on his wrist, hitherto an ornament for ladies only. This original wristwatch was given to Santos-Dumont in 1904; to this day the firm of Cartier still carries a line of watches called Santos-Dumont.

Retirement and Death

By 1910, however, Santos was already suffering from periodic depressions and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Although he was not yet 40, he retired from active aviation and design.

Santos retreated first to a provincial French village and then to his native Brazil, where he built a small chalet on a hillside. The house featured such then-exotic novelties as a speaking tube and a heated shower with running water.

Santos's return to Brazil was intended to be a triumphant occasion; a dozen members of the Brazilian scientific community boarded a seaplane in order to welcome his ship. Unfortunately, the plane crashed, killing all aboard. This tragedy, as well as the use of airplanes in World War I and in the Brazilian Constitutional Rebellion, deepened Santos-Dumont's depression.

On July 23, 1932, Santos hanged himself in a hotel room in the city of Guarujá in São Paulo.

Santos's Sexuality

In Brazil and in France, Santos is celebrated as a national hero on a level with Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin in the United States. Yet only now is the Anglo-American scientific world coming to recognize his unique and lasting achievements.

While some of this disregard springs from nationalistic motives, part of this scholarly neglect may also be due to the reluctance of the Anglo-American scientific establishment to acknowledge the achievement of a man who in all likelihood was a homosexual. The tendency has been for Brazilians to deny Santos's homosexuality while celebrating his accomplishments and for English and American historians to admit his homosexuality while denying the singularity of his achievements.

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