In April 1900, Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe issued a challenge to the world’s aeronauts: 100,000 francs to anyone who could fly from the Parc d’Aerostation of the Aero Club at Saint-Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back (a distance of 6.8 miles) in 30 minutes or less.
A year and a half later, on October 19, 1901, Alberto Santos-Dumont piloted his Airship No. 6 through the Paris skies to win the Deutsch prize.
Alberto’s family owned a coffee plantation in Brazil. As a boy he played with the steam engines and machinery used to grow and harvest the coffee beans. He also made flying machines from straw with propellers driven by springs of twisted rubber. During the St. John bonfire celebrations each June 24th, he would launch silk-paper balloons carried aloft by the warmth of the fires.
When he was 18, Alberto’s family traveled to Paris where the first hydrogen balloon had been flown in 1783. He was very excited to see steam-powered airships like the one flown by Henri Giffard in 1852, but was surprised to find only the traditional spherical balloons. On that trip and two following trips, Alberto talked to aeronauts about making an ascent in a balloon, but the price always seemed too high. He became convinced of this after reading a book that fully outlined construction costs of a balloon. He contacted the book’s author and arranged for a ride at reasonable expense.
He later described his first balloon flight as delightful. “Human beings look like ants along the white lines that are highways, and the rows of houses look like children’s playthings.” That day Alberto spent nearly two hours in the air.
He commissioned the aeronaut to make him a balloon of his own, but different from those that had been made before.
“I wanted a balloon of the lightest and toughest Japanese silk, 100 cubic meters (about 3500 cubic feet) in volume.” The aeronaut worried a light balloon would be affected too much by the movement of the people in the basket. Alberto’s idea worked and offered the advantage of being easy to control and easy to pack after landing. It folded up so small, he could even carry it in a valise.
By 1898, Alberto had a cylindrical balloon built that he could steer with a motor, which hung suspended below the balloon by ropes. Over the next three years, he had five more airships built, each model a little more advanced than the last.
Alberto loved being able to move in three dimensions. “I cannot describe the delight, the wonder, and intoxication of this free diagonal movement onward and upward or onward and downward, combined at will with brusque changes of direction horizontally when the air-ship answers to the touch of the rudder. The birds have this sensation when they spread their great wings and go tobogganing in curves and spirals through the sky!”
In July 1901, Alberto began attempting to win the Deutsch prize. After several accidents, including one that required building a new balloon, he tried again on October 19, 1901.
“The air-ship, carried by the impetus of its great speed, passed on as a racehorse passes the winning-post, as a sailing yacht passes the winning –line, as a road racing automobile continues flying past the judges who have snapped its time. Like the jockey of the racehorse, I then turned and drove myself back to the aerodrome to have my guide rope caught and be drawn down at twelve minutes forty and four-fifths seconds past three, or thirty minutes and forty seconds from the start.”
Source: MY AIRSHIPS: THE STORY OF MY LIFE by Alberto Santos-Dumont, Riverside Press Limited, Edinburg, 1904.