National Aviation Day takes place Aug. 19 in honor of Orville Wright who, along with his brother Wilbur, launched the first man-powered flight. But Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont also had a role in the beginnings of aviation and he is the subject of Victoria Griffith’s children’s book, The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont.
Griffith is a former journalist who has worked for the Financial Times.
Q: Tell me about your book and the story of Alberto Santos-Dumont.
Brazilians say Alberto was the TRUE inventor of the airplane, not the Wright Brothers. Leaving that controversy aside for a moment, Alberto certainly deserves recognition for his role in aviation history. He was the only person ever to have run daily errands in a flying machine – a dirigible, or controllable balloon, of his own invention that he would use to hop around Paris. He would tether it to lampposts and ask the waiters in nearby cafes to bring up him some coffee. At the turn of the last century, Alberto was one of the most famous people in the world. Bakers in Paris would make pastries in the shape of his dirigible.
Alberto grew up on a coffee plantation in Brazil. When his father became partially paralyzed after falling off a horse, the family moved to Paris in search of a cure. There, Alberto took his first balloon ride. He was immediately hooked. All his life, he dreamed of making flight available to every one in the world. He complained to his friend, Louis Cartier, that he had a hard time checking the time on his pocket watch when he was up in the air. Cartier invented the wristwatch for Alberto! The Santos-Dumont model, in fact, is still available at Cartier stores.
But Alberto wanted to go farther and faster than his dirigible would take him. In 1906, Alberto was ready to give his airplane a try. No in Paris had heard of the Wright Brothers’ flights, because of their secretive nature. The Wrights were terrified that some one would steal their patents. As a result, there were only a handful of witnesses when they flew in Kitty Hawk a few years earlier. And their plane needed high winds and a catapult system to get off the ground. Alberto’s airplane took off of its own volition, which is why some historians still recognize him as the Father of Flight.
Q: How did you find out about his story? Why hasn’t his story received as much attention as the Wright Brothers?
One day, my daughter Sophia came home from school and said she had learned that the Wright Brothers had invented the airplane. My Brazilian husband was horrified. “Everyone knows that the inventor of the airplane was Alberto Santos-Dumont!” he said. I was intrigued. I had lived in Brazil and heard of Alberto, but I knew little of the details of his work. I was fascinated to discover that there was still so much controversy surrounding the invention of the airplane.
Nationalistic sentiments influence our view of history. So it makes sense that the Wrights would be recognized as the inventors here in the United States and other parts of the world, while Alberto would be seen as the Father of Flight in Brazil. But I do think Americans should make a space for Alberto in the history books.
Q: You lived in Brazil, and your husband is Brazilian. Were there any Brazilian writers that you admired? What is the literary scene like in Brazil?
Magical realism authors like Jorge Amado enjoyed international fame some decades ago, but in general I think Brazilian writers’ use of the Portuguese language is too sophisticated and specific to translate well to other languages. Take “The Girl from Ipanema” poem by Vinicius de Moraes, used in the lyrics of a very popular Bossa Nova song by the same name. In the English version, the words are pretty banal, a song about a pretty girl walking by. In the Portuguese version, the poet wonders about a beauty that belongs not just to one person but to the world around. It’s so much more profound.
Similarly, one of my favorite children’s books in Brazil is by the songwriter Chico Buarque. It’s called Chapeuzinho Amarelo, and it’s about a girl who’s afraid of everything, but especially the wolf, or lobo. One day, she hears the wolf calling his name over and over. When he stops, the lobo has become a bolo, or cake. Of course, no one can be afraid of a cake, and Chapeuzinho is transformed into a girl who is not afraid of anything. This kind of sophisticated wordplay is difficult to access unless you speak the language.