Not just an American story


This brave fellow (landing on a 92 foot department-store roof, to claim a prize in 1919 Paris) is Jules Vedrines – an early French pilot who spent WW1 flying spies into tight spaces (good practise for this stunt).  He was also the first man to ever fly faster than 100mph.

Aviation was always an international project – Cayley and Lilienthal made huge contributions which the Wright brothers drew upon heavily.  But there’s another angle – a debate as old as aviation itself – what is flying for?  Critics note the Wright brothers made their first sale to the military, and had this in mind from the start.


However, there were many early aviators, in Europe especially, who truly believed in the power of travel to soften differences and ideally, prevent war, like the first man to fly a plane in Europe – and my favourite early aviator, Alberto Santos=Dumont.

In 1901 (2 years before the Wright’s first flight) he flew from St Cloud, around the Eiffel tower and back in less than thirty minutes, in a tiny nimble one-man (open-chair!) dirigible.  When the prize committee said he hadn’t made it, because his tow-line wasn’t tied-down until a minute after, the public were enraged and he got the 100,000 after all.  So what did he do?  He gave it all away – 25,000 to the craftsmen who’d built his airship, and the other 75,000 to the poor of Paris!

Later, over lunch with Henri Cartier, he complained about the bother of checking his pocket-watch in-flight – and Henri designed and made the very first wrist-watch for him!  (Aviator’s chronometer is a correct description – not just a bling-enhancer).

He was a pioneer in dirigibles, airplanes, helicopters, and ultralights, when science was only occasionally able to create viable machines (risked his own life, again and again).

Santos=Dumont last flew in 1910 (in a Demoiselle which crashed).  When WW1 began, small town French bigots accused him of being a spy (why else would a genius have a funny accent and a telescope?) he was so depressed about it, he burned all his papers and decided to go home to Brazil.

Sadly, despite the respect he got there – he also saw airplanes used against people in a civil war – which broke his heart (he took his own life, soon after).

Final note – he didn’t use a hyphen for his last names – he used an equals-sign – because he wanted to give equal respect to both his father’s French and mother’s Brazilian heritage.  Not a bad idea even for today, I’d say.



I am always curious about what you are thinking

Previous Story

Launch window

Next Story

Halfway between trooping the colours and kissing a baby

Latest from The World Over Time

Switch to mobile version