Alberto’s Big Race

Around the Eiffel Tower in 1901.

Santos-Dumont rounding the Eiffel Tower during an earlier flight in July 1901. SI

As prizes go, this was a big one. In 1901, French oil tycoon and aviation patron Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe put up 100,000 francs (equivalent to more than $500,000 today) for the first airman who could fly a 7-mile circuit starting from a park in Paris, rounding the Eiffel Tower, then returning to the starting point, within 30 minutes. Heavier-than-air flight was still a couple of years away, so this was a contest for powered balloons. And Brazilian-born Alberto Santos-Dumont, the most famous airman in France, was ready with his airship No. 6.

In his 1904 autobiography, Santos-Dumont grumbled about some of the rules attached to the Deutsch prize. First, the flight had to be witnessed by a committee of the Aero Club, which had to be notified of the attempt 24 hours in advance (even though the balloonist wouldn't know about weather conditions so far ahead of time). Once the committee was gathered, Santos-Dumont feared he "would be under a kind of moral pressure to go on with his trial," whether or not he and his machine were ready. And it would be inconsiderate to ask the committee to show up at dawn, when atmospheric conditions would be best. "The duellist may call out his friends at that sacred hour, but not the air-ship captain," he wrote.

So it was that at the inconvenient (for the balloonist) hour of 2:42 p.m. on Saturday, October 19, 1901, No. 6 rose 250 yards into the air and headed for the Eiffel Tower. It wasn't an easy flight. The balloon's engine failed three times, but Santos-Dumont managed to restart it each time, and crossed over his starting point with 45 seconds to spare in the half hour. According to biographer Paul Hoffman, after he came down, he leaned over the side of his craft and yelled "Have I won the prize?"

Hundreds of spectators responded in unison, "Yes! Yes!" and swarmed the airship. He was showered with flower petals that swirled like confetti. Men and women cried. The Comtesse d'Eu dropped to her knees, raised her hands to the heavens, and thanked God for protecting her fellow countryman. The countess' companion, the wife of John D. Rockefeller, squealed like a schoolgirl. A stranger presented Santos-Dumont with a small white rabbit, and another handed him a steaming cup of Brazilian coffee.

Now the bad news: According to the Aero Club, he hadn't won the prize. The rules stated that his round-trip flight had to be completed (when ground crews grabbed the balloon's guide rope) within 30 minutes. And he'd been 40 seconds late. The Parisian press and public were furious on their hero's behalf, but the club stuck to its rules. Not until November 4 did it finally vote to award Santos-Dumont the prize money.

"But the action was too late to appease him," according to Hoffman. "He promptly resigned from the Aero Club, thanked the people of Paris for their support, and announced that he would be spending the winter in Monte Carlo." Then he gave half the prize money to the poor.

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