What would you do if you inherited a family fortune? Buy yourself a nice manor in the country? A collection of exotic cars, a yacht maybe? That was the rather pleasant position Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont found himself in back at the tail end of the 19th century, and he could have spent that money on nice things, but he chose to do something else: he invented the world’s first powered, heavier-than-air flying machine.
Wait! you must be thinking, I thought the Wright Brothers invented the first heavier-than-air flying machine? You’re right, they did. In December of 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright, having won a coin toss against his brother, Wilbur, piloted the Wright Flyer into a freezing wind for a distance of 37m.
Difference is, the Wright Flyer didn’t get itself into the air. The engine was only capable of moving the plane along the ground at 6mph—22mph shy of the speed it needed to generate lift. The first flights relied on strong a headwind, and later flights made use of a catapult. Santos-Dumont’s plane, the 14-bis, managed to take off and fly under its own steam.
But we get ahead of ourselves, and this is supposed to be about watches after all. The segue from Santos-Dumont to the watch of the same name will be clearer with a little background on the man himself—not so much about his lineage or physical appearance, more the kind of person he was.
Santos-Dumont’s interest in flight stemmed from a two-hour balloon ride he’d taken in Paris in 1897. A balloon ride cost, at the time, a rather weighty 1,200 francs; that’s conservatively estimated at about £15,000 today, so expensive that he had previously forgone the ride at the concern of not enjoying it and feeling he wasted the money, or enjoying it a lot and not having the opportunity to do it again.
The solution, having adored the experience very much, was to make his own balloon. But wafting around at the wind’s leisure was not enough for Santos-Dumont, and a year later he had fitted his balloon with steering apparatus and an electric motor. Despite several hair-raising crashes, Santos-Dumont would not be parted from his dirigible, and could often be seen floating above the streets of Paris aboard it. He even attended his favourite restaurant, La Cascade, in his craft, parking it outside on the street to the awe and bemusement of the locals.
It was a hobby that had quickly become a passion, and as with all passions, it didn’t take long to devolve into competition. Santos-Dumont set his sights on the Deutsch de le Meurthe prize, a 100,000-franc award for anyone who could fly from the aero club at Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back again in less than 30 minutes.
Now things were serious. Santos-Dumont needed an accurate timepiece to monitor his progress in the competition; just as well he was good friends with a Parisian watchmaker by the name of Louis Cartier.
Santos-Dumont’s dirigible was, putting it nicely, a bit of a contraption. Picture this: a long, slender balloon, around 20m tip to tip, fashioned in highly flammable silk, under which a pine scaffold hangs by piano wire to support the combustion engine driving the propeller and, of course, Santos-Dumont himself.
Having crashed on multiple occasions, Santos-Dumont was required to focus every effort on the piloting of his machine. Pocket watches, very much the fashion of the time, were useless to him; he needed to read the time in an instant, without the need to take his hands off of the controls.
Cartier had an idea: the watch would be wrist worn. This was by no means the first time this had been done—the inaugural wristwatch was conceived almost a century prior—but it was well established as a feminine accessory, something no man in his right mind would wear.
This didn’t matter to Santos-Dumont, and so Cartier presented him with a watch, one with a rugged case with integrated lugs and a leather strap, solid enough to withstand the inevitable crashes Santos-Dumont was bound to have.
After multiple attempts—including an engine fire that he put out with his Panama hat, and a crash that left him hanging from the roof of the Trocadero Hotel—Santos-Dumont finally won the 100,000-franc prize, which he immediately donated to the poor of Paris. The Brazilian eccentric became an international celebrity overnight, featuring on the cover of Vanity Fair and sparking a trend for Panama hats and—of course—men’s wristwatches.
Undeterred by his fame, Santos-Dumont—equipped with his Cartier, which he never flew without—approached the feat of heavier-than-air flight head on. News of the Wright Brothers’ flight had reached him in Paris, and he was determined to go one better, by making a plane that could take to the air under its own power.
In typical Santos-Dumont style, the development of the 14-bis was fraught with accident. Hung from dirigible number 14 for testing—hence 14-bis, bis loosely meaning ‘improvement’—silk was shredded, cables snapped, propellers shattered—twice—and a wheel feel off, but on the 13th of September 1906, Santos-Dumont’s aircraft lifted from the ground, flew 7m—and then promptly crashed. Not the landing he’d wanted, but it was a landing. The plane had flown.
Santos-Dumont went on to pilot his aircraft into the record books, earning prize after prize as his flights increased in length, culminating in the design of the Demoiselle No. 19, which could be bought for the modern equivalent of £100,000, be built in just 15 days and could reach speeds of 60mph. The man’s personality played as much of a part in his success as his money, demonstrated by his ability to turn Cartier’s wristwatch from a fashion faux pas to a must-have accessory overnight.
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