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Was the airplane's inventor Brazilian?

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• 100 years of flight external link
start quoteHe would keep his dirigible tied to a gas lamp post in front of his Paris apartment at the Champs-Elysees and every night he would fly to Maxim's for dinner. During the day he'd fly to go shopping, he'd fly to visit friends.end quote
-- Paul Hoffman, author
Alberto Santos-Dumont
Air Transportation

PETROPOLIS, Brazil (Reuters) -- As Americans prepare to celebrate the centennial of the Wright brothers' first flight, a whole country is cringing at what it believes to be a historical injustice against one of its most beloved heroes.

Ask anyone in Brazil who invented the airplane and they will say Alberto Santos-Dumont, a five-foot four-inch (1.6 meter) bon vivant who was as well known for his aerial prowess as he was for his dandyish dress and high society life in Belle Epoque Paris.

As Paul Hoffman recounts in his Santos-Dumont biography "Wings of Madness," the eccentric Brazilian was the first and only person to own a personal flying machine that could take him just about anywhere he wanted to go.

"He would keep his dirigible tied to a gas lamp post in front of his Paris apartment at the Champs-Elysees and every night he would fly to Maxim's for dinner. During the day he'd fly to go shopping, he'd fly to visit friends," Hoffman said.

An idealist who believed flight was spiritually soothing, Santos-Dumont financed his lavish lifestyle and aerial experiments in Paris with the inheritance his coffee-farming father had advanced him as a young man. Always impeccably dressed, he regularly took a gourmet lunch with him on his ballooning expeditions.

It was on November 12, 1906, when Santos-Dumont flew a kite-like contraption with boxy wings called the 14-Bis some 722 feet (220 meters) on the outskirts of Paris. It being the first public flight in the world, he was hailed as the inventor of the airplane all over Europe.

It was only later that the secretive Orville and Wilbur Wright proved they had beaten Santos-Dumont at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, three years earlier on December 17.

But to bring up the Wright brothers with a Brazilian is bound to elicit an avalanche of arguments -- some more reasonable than others -- as to why their compatriot's flight didn't count.

"It's one of the biggest frauds in history," scoffs Wagner Diogo, a taxi driver in Rio de Janeiro, of the Wrights' inaugural flight. "No one saw it, and they used a catapult to launch" the airplane.

Did it count?

Apparently, the debate comes down to how you define the first flight of an airplane.

Henrique Lins de Barros, a Brazilian physicist and Santos-Dumont expert, argues that the Wright brothers' flight did not fulfill the conditions that had been set up at the time to distinguish a true flight from a prolonged hop.

But Santos-Dumont's flight did meet the criteria, which in essence meant he took off unassisted, publicly flew a predetermined length in front of experts and then landed safely.

"If we understand what the criteria were at the end of the 19th century, the Wright brothers simply do not fill any of the prerequisites," says Lins de Barros.

Brazilians also claim that the Wrights launched their Flyer in 1903 with a catapult or at an incline, thereby disqualifying it from being a true airplane because it did not take off on its own.

Even Santos-Dumont experts like Lins de Barros concede this is wrong. But he says that the strong, steady winds at Kitty Hawk were crucial for the Flyer's take-off, disqualifying the flight because there was no proof it could lift off on its own.

Peter Jakab, chairman of the aeronautics division at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and a Wright brothers expert, says such claims are preposterous.

By the time Santos-Dumont got around to his maiden flight the Wright brothers had already flown numerous times, including one in which they flew 24 miles (39 km) in 40 minutes.

"Even in 1903 the airplane sustained itself in the air for nearly a minute. If it's not sustaining itself under its own power it's not going to stay up that long," Jakab says.

Even in France -- never a country too eager to agree with the U.S. point of view -- the Wrights are considered to have flown before Santos-Dumont, says Claude Carlier, the director of the French Center for the History of Aeronautics and Space.

"There's a strong nationalist issue at play here," says Marcos Villares, Santos-Dumont's great grandnephew. "Flight was a very important step in human history, in the history of technology. Every country wants to claim priority."

First to use a watch?

But that is not to say that Santos-Dumont does not deserve recognition for his other contributions.

By rounding the Eiffel Tower in a motorized dirigible in 1901, he helped prove that air travel could be controlled and a practical means of transportation.

"Just to show that the flying machine was practical is an incredible achievement," says Hoffman, his biographer.

At his summer home in the Brazilian mountain town of Petropolis, tour guides perpetuate myths about Santos-Dumont -- such as how he invented the wristwatch.

Santos-Dumont experts deny that assertion, although they concede he was probably the first male civilian to use a watch after asking his friend Louis Cartier to make him a timepiece he could use while flying. Previously, only royalty and soldiers had used watches.

To this day, you can still buy the Santos-model Cartier watch for only a couple of thousand dollars.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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