The man who flew before the Wright Brothers
And the woman whose ground-breaking flight did not matter
“In turn the goddess Thetis of the silver feet answered him [Akhilleus (Achilles)] : ‘(…)Yet, see now, your splendid armour, glaring and brazen, is held among the Trojans, and Hector wears it . . . ’
Homer, Iliad 18. 127 ff.
“Thetis warned Akhilleus (Achilles) not to be the first to disembark from the ships [at Troy], because the first to land was going to be the first to die.”
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca E3. 29
There is no way of starting this without being bombastic, so I’m going to be as bombastic as I can- it is not often I get to indulge in epigraphs, let alone cite the Epic. It’s too bad, isn’t it- about the Epic. Haven’t you heard? It hasn’t been able to keep up with the world and the realities of our lives today: capitalism calls for constant innovation and, I’m sorry to say, the Epic is forever stuck on b. C. (people simply don’t really visit Mount Olympus anymore, nor do they go skinny dipping in the Styx).
But what was I being bombastic about before my short attention span so rudely crashed? Oh, yes. Are you ready?
Did you know that a man named Alberto Santos Dumont invented the airplane? Yes, of course, you probably think it was the Wright Brothers, but that is because Americans always want everything for themselves.
Santos Dumont is probably the most relevant person you’ve never heard about. He was the inventor not only of the airplane, but also, the wristwatch. Apparently, he was tired of having to take out his pocket-watch every time he ran flight tests.
He was also Brazilian, which was a clear disadvantage.
An airplane is an aircraft heavier than air which is able to power its own engine.
While the Wright Brothers did manage to make their invention fly, it was not able to take off on its own- Dumont’s plane, on the other hand, powered itself and achieved take-off through wheels.
Even if one is inclined to stick with the Wright Brothers on this- it is always sort of sad to have a historical myth exposed-, one must at least acknowledge that Santos Dumont’s model turned out to be much more influential, and that most airplanes today descend directly from his plane: the 14-Bis, the first to ever fly.
His breakthrough was perhaps the most public one ever: after graduating from engineering school in France, Santos Dumont received a prestigious German grant in order to pursuit what, to a man of his time, seemed like the final frontier.
As a result Dumont ran frequent tests right by the Eiffel Tower, where everyone could see. He was quite a character, carrying around his many flying machines, daring to think he could. The short Brazilian fellow, impeccably- exaggeratedly- dressed à la Belle Epoch, playing with his wires; thinks he can make man fly. What an odd character! In all of his pictures he is wearing a hat- I know it wasn’t odd for people to wear them; they at the height of popularity. Still, it’s odd, because he came to be identified with it.
Not even the most sceptical of readers could deny the sublime appeal of the black and white image of an old plane, wide open wings like a baby bird peeping its first fumes, venturing through the air as his man-made anatomy evoked nature- it carried its creator like a horse- diving gloriously, joyfully, around a recently built Eiffel Tower, while a crowd of Parisians watches.
No wonder the French called the 14-Bis the Oiseau de proie– or bird of prey.
I’ve always quite liked birds of prey- not the ugly ones who hover for carcasses, but falcons and eagles and condors and owls. When I was a kid I had a book about animals who laid eggs and how their babies looked like and how the Mother owl took care of the babies even though they looked horrendous.
Santos Dumont’s achievement happened in November, 1906, and it was also recorded on film and reported by many newspapers. The venture of the Wright Brothers, though, was not only poorly documented but also witnessed exclusively by a handful of their employees. A while ago, in fact, The Independent published an article titled The man who really invented the Airplane, in which it is revealed that even the US National Aeronautic Association, until 1939, claimed that the first flight by the Wright Brothers took place only in 1908. Had new evidence come into light? Or had it just been long enough for people to forget? The author of the article goes on to joke that, in the industry, the Wright Brothers are referred to as the “Wrong” Brothers- while I have tried my best to avoid making this pun myself (for 19 lines I resisted), it is perfectly literary to have it cited.
Just so it’s clear, I’m not trying to launch a new conspiracy theory- contrary to the Wright Brothers, who wanted to launch things but failed. I am just, as a Brazilian, doing my due-diligence. The “white-washing” of this inventor should not, to us, come as a surprise. Even though to us Santos Dumont was white enough that he benefitted from all the privileges of his father’s coffee plantations -which also allowed him to study in Paris- he was not sufficiently white not to have his place of origin looked past. This might seem confusing, but in Brazil there is a great deal of white people, some of whom would be still considered white in the USA and European countries; some of whom would be labelled “Latinos” (which, by the way, is not an actual race).
Nevertheless, because we don’t yet have a term that fits xenophobia just as white-washing fits racism, we’ll have to use it in this text- although, there a term really should be coined; these things happen quite frequently- take Rosalind Franklin, a Jewish white woman whose discovery of the DNA was stolen by Watson and Crick. Had she been a non-Jewish man, she could have easily contested them without being dismissed so quickly- and they certainly wouldn’t have won a Nobel Prize for her findings.
While I don’t actually think the Wright Brothers stole Santos Dumont’s invention, they still get all the credit for it. It is left for us to wonder: if Santos Dumont had been an American doing open air demonstrations, piloting a heavier-than-air aircraft around the Statue of Liberty, wouldn’t he and not his compatriots be deemed the first to fly? Wouldn’t the Wright Brothers have become, by now, a footnote?
Like Alexander the Great and Caesar, I’m out to conquer the world. But first I have to stop at Walmart and pick up some supplies.
[Jarod Kintz, The Titanic Never Would Have Sunk if it were made out of a sink]
When I was about twelve, I developed an obsession with pioneer aviatrix Harriet Quimby. It is hard to say what drew me to her initially- that she was a woman in a man’s game, that she was the first woman to get a piloting license in the US, and to fly over the English Channel.
Mainly, I think I wanted an outlet for my creative energies and the subject of early aviation found me just as I found my first camera- one that was really mine; a grownup’s camera, not those Barbie ones that could never fit any film, and which one always got for Christmas. That Christmas, though, I asked for money and picked the camera myself.
So, naturally, I decided to make a movie about Harriet Quimby’s life. As any movie director, I drew up a budget and asked my mother to buy me special costumes and set decorations. My mother laughed at my face, but she took me to C&A and told me I could pick one thing- I picked a purple jacket, in order to shoot the famous grape juice commercial that starred Harriet Quimby.
I don’t think we actually got to that, though. My friends from school were summoned to help me, and for a bunch of twelve year-olds making a movie about piloting old planes that could not logically accommodate an actual plane, we did actually follow it as through as one could expect us to.
The first scene shot, of Harriet’s friend Matilde Moissant’s plane crash, was the best start we could have hoped for: I have the clearest memory of my friend, sitting in our playground’s roundabout as if she were piloting a plane, looking at the camera, professing “Oh! Some fog!”, and throwing herself off of it (our dialogues were admittedly not that great).
A generous amount of ketchup was happily applied to my friend’s face, neck and hands for when we close-up on her after the fall. The fall we had shot through many angles; she’d rolled down a slippery slope which was still steep enough not to make the whole thing dull- I guess my friend could brag about doing her own stunts.
When she was done free falling and lying there acting passed out- which was difficult because she kept laughing whenever I zoomed in to her face- she licked the ketchup off her hands and around mouth. Speaking from my own experience with ketchup as a stand-in for blood in one’s face, I don’t know how she did that.
Later that same day, the scene had been properly edited to fit every take of the fall, thus making it longer. I added some zany sound-effects by playing some solemn notes in my piano, and called it an original soundtrack. All in all, the scene would have made for an amazing school project.
The rest of the movie didn’t go as swiftly. There was the issue with scenes that all of us were in, because there was no one to hold the camera and a lot of heads got cut. Some elaborate scenes where we played different characters (including Santos Dumont) required the use of assorted wigs. Not that I’m complaining about the wigs; we were always excited to wear them. In fact, I liked them so much that, even though Harriet Quimby’s hair was shoulder-length in photos, I still decided to wear that wig of short, curly hair in my film- just so I could feel different.
Somewhere in a long line of laptops, there must be a Windows Media Player copy of Aviatrix: Pioneering Women. It is pretty bad. We didn’t even get to the crossing of the English Channel- the last thing we shot was Harriet pondering whether she still would like to fly. It ended up being a long sequence of Harriet and Matilde getting drunk to Abba’s Dancing Queen, which made literally no sense but took up half the movie. I believe the idea behind it was that we had no props but a beer can that someone had left at the common barbecue area, where we were filming. So, naturally, we started acting drunk and throwing bread at each other- oh, there was also bread.
Anyway, we just thought pretending to be drunk was so awesome. Pretending, the way kids do, is always much more fun than actually doing stuff.
Children are always trying to be someone else- and, somehow, by not limiting themselves to one role, they are the most authentic people in the world. Do we learn how to be ourselves by pretending to be other people? Those games of make-belief, those hypotheses of who we are, are the purest expression of humanity. The existentialist decree that we lose something when we name it, that we limit it- allows for a period of expansion.
Funny thing about kids; they’re always naming their dolls and teddy bears (and any toy that comes bearing a face, really) after themselves. My cousin Christian when he was younger named his stuffed lion Christian Lion, and his stuffed bunny Christian Bunny- which in English sounds like he was converting them in a Jesuit endeavour, but I promise it was only because that is his name.
At first I was mad at his lack of creativity- I told him to pick some other name; otherwise we’d mistake one Christian for another and start hanging out with the stuffed toys instead of him.
I guess I thought it was weird because I’d never done it, but I’ve noticed since then that most kids are like that. It’s kind of like planting a flag in newfound territory, or naming places after whom discovered them. He was making the world a little more his own, and taking charge of that brave new world of his.
Adults don’t really know who they are- they know what they are. It’s the opposite with children. They aren’t anything yet, but they know who they are, and who they are is everyone.
When they grow up most kids conform. Santos Dumont and Harriet Quimby, though; they kept on thinking they could be anyone they wanted.
I was four when I first took a plane; I think I was going to Lisbon with my mom, and it was a long flight. I remember bringing my favourite doll with me and my father picking us up at the airport, and my doll falling into a puddle right away. We went to the hotel and washed her thoroughly- yet my mom didn’t let me play with her, saying she might be amoeba-infested. I remember having a nightmare that wolves had captured my doll and bit out the cloth off her face and then the rest of her body. I remember lots of things, actually. Some people block out their childhoods; I have the clearest memories. Of course, I’m also hopelessly forgetful about recent events and current responsibilities. Head in the clouds, they say.
I’m going on and on about my childhood because it is intrinsically connected to planes. I wanted to be a pilot back then- not as an actual profession, but I wanted to learn how to pilot and have my own really old plane. I also wanted to make enough money to buy my own really old plane.
These days, I have to take a Rivotril before I get on a plane. I don’t know why, but that fear suddenly crept up on me. I really can’t explain it any other way that one time it occurred to me that I had flown so many times and taken so many planes, if I kept on taking them I was bound to die in an accident. You know that feeling, when a plane crashes, and you think to yourself- oh, maybe it’s safe to take a plane now, because there’s no way there are going to be two accidents in this short a span of time? That was my reasoning.
Of course, my brain knows that the laws of probability are renewed every time the dice is tossed. My love of the Epic, however, is a little more biased.
After my ill-advised attempt to shoot a movie where I played a grown woman whose passion lay on piloting playground roundabouts, my career as a film-maker reached an end: I decided I was better off writing like I always had, because you don’t need any props or people or special gear in order to write. If you want to write about a plane, you don’t have to actually build a replica- you can just say “She was on a plane”, and people will accept it.
But I have been so caught up in my own weird childhood that I did not even tell you about Harriet Quimby- to think she ever was an obsession of mine! Granted, that only goes to show that my only obsession is myself (but, as that isn’t nice, I need to find subjects that suit me and insert myself upon them).
Quimby was, though, quite a role model. She was my feminist icon- in my loose vocabulary, any woman who had done something important. More than that, she was an aviation heroine that could be mine- not like Amelia Earhart, who already belonged to everyone else. See, I was always that kid who collected obscure trivia, simply to know more than the other kids- and, having read all there was on Harriet Quimby, I liked to think she was obscure enough that no one knew more of her life than me.
Nonetheless, factual memory fades- I’m not quite the Quimby buff I used to be. I could tell you some things- she was born in Michigan, she was introduced to aviation by John Moissant, Matilde’s brother, she never married; she died in a plane crash at a firework show (I think that was her).
Yet the most striking thing about Harriet Quimby- and why she has been forgotten and relented into obscure trivia is that the day that saw her make history by crossing the English Channel – April 12, 1912- was also the day the Titanic sank.
Now, that is some mighty bad luck.
That and that alone is what turned her into a footnote. Like our friend Santos Dumont, she would never get the recognition she deserved. Both these people: neglected by history after they helped make it and weave it into the fabric of the century, and centuries to come.
Maybe I never would have become interested in Harriet Quimby if it weren’t for this. I definitely wouldn’t be advocating for Santos Dumont, were he finally acknowledged as the inventor of the plane. It’s not simply a matter of historical justice- I never much cared for accuracy if reality didn’t make for as good a story. For instance, I hate the very true fact that Brazil was not discovered by chance, as we learn at school, but was in fact a land hinted upon. That’s just boring.
And I’m sure that part of this anger I feel when someone doesn’t know his name is patriotism- still, I’m not the most patriotic person, and I wouldn’t be equally upset about Quimby’s lack of recognition were it merely for this reason.
No, the reason I’ve been obsessively writing about this is my disquiet stomach telling me I can’t trust the process. See, we all want to believe that we can achieve metaphorical immortality if we do things that will stand the test of time, like Achilles in the Iliad (yes, that’s why I’ve been using epigraphs like crazy). Perhaps it is our consciousness of mortality that’s made numb, while we’re thinking that maybe if we do something great we won’t be forgotten by this living world spinning faster and leaving all men behind. If Santos Dumont, the eternal genius, can’t break those barriers, we’re all as lost and left for dead.
Is it possible that the bird of prey could be defeated by the moth – who might not fly as gloriously but whose ignorant hunger has cost us many a history book? Moths must by now have destroyed more historical references than the great fire of Alexandria- they were jealous of the birds of prey, that’s why.
Recognition is more than fame, it is proof it happened- Berkeley said, To be is to be noticed. If no one is able to attest for your existence but your own damn self, then who’s to vouch for you when you’re gone? Where’s my alibi? Where is the proof that I’ve lived? How can we ever trust that the records we have are the records that should have survived?
Granted, nothing is completely arbitrary- the fact that, for instance, Plato and Aristotle survived might say more about our society than of their own intrinsic value (sorry, Plato). If the Catholic Church had decided to follow some arbitrary sophist, the way we think would have gone along with them, and their views would therefore more relevant.
There is some comfort in the notion that this is a reciprocal process between culture and universality- the entire Iliad survived both because due to its universality and the fact that this universality is a consequence of its cultural permanence.
In The Iliad, the choice Achilles had to make- even though Achilles was a fighter, a warrior; not an inventor or an artist or a power-hungry statesman-, between greatness and happiness, is perhaps the beginning of the cult of sacrifice. By sacrificing himself, he chose glorious death over a long life, and we are therefore encouraged to value one over the other.
Everyone wants to be the good kind of happy, not the easy kind. It is no coincidence all happy families are happy in the same way, but each unhappy one is unhappy in their own. Happy is boring, mediocre, unremarkable. Happiness is ordinary, and none of us- none of the seven billion people currently alive in this miniscule planet- are ordinary.
I wonder how much of that mentality went into Harriet Quimby’s life. Flying was a risky business back then- maybe the final reason why she interested me so much is because it seemed to me that this is what her life meant to her. I’m not saying it meant life to her- I’m saying it was bigger, greater, a world way beyond hers. Saying something means life to someone means literally nothing. We don’t know the fucking meaning of life. We know we ought to find something greater than us. If you’d rather die than never do something again, then you’ve found it.
Quimby obviously lived to challenge herself- when given pick in her “Achilles moment”, she’d easily pick glory over peace of mind- and yet she somehow got neither. Santos Dumont, too, got a very limited amount of recognition- and he must have found no peace, for he killed himself in 1932, citing the violent ends towards which his invention had been used. Maybe it was too late to change his answer.
The problem with the dilemma given to Achilles by the Oracles in the Iliad is that Achilles had, upon choosing, actual guarantee that he would get whatever he chose. He was aware that, if he chose not to go back to Troy, he’d live a full, long life- and if he chose war, as we know he did, he would not survive, but be he’d remembered for millennia to come.
I don’t know how beneficial this mentality is, that one can’t be both “great” and happy. Of course, most people are neither, and they are relatively content. And if there is the possibility of neither, there must be the possibility of both- that is a convincing enough syllogism. It is very nice, too, isn’t it?
Anyhow, Achilles’s choice of “Greatness” is almost too easy. He is choosing guaranteed immortality over guaranteed longevity: win-win.
Santos Dumont and Quimby set about with no promise of success, actually accomplished what they had set about to do, and still didn’t make it to the beach.
I remember an episode of Madeleine in which the title character painted a picture and signed it only with an “M”. Her painting somehow wound up at the Louvre, being deemed a masterpiece- too bad it was anonymous! Revolted, Madeleine insisted it was hers, but no one would believe that a little girl could have produced such an ephemeral expression of the human soul. In the end, instead of her being recognize, we are taught to be happy that her painting even made it to the Louvre, even if others may never know the truth.
And we must not say that just contributing was enough, for them, either: we can’t all be as selfless- or, rather, conformed- as Madeleine. It is all too late for us to keep excusing injustices on the grounds of selflessness and forgiveness.
Girls should know about Harriet Quimby, Matilde Moissant, Helene Dutrieu (a protégé of Santos Dumont whom he taught to pilot) and all those pioneering women, just as the children of Brazilian immigrants everywhere should know that a Brazilian man invented the airplane. That is already reason enough against the mask of “selflessness and forgiveness”, as if we were the ones who were oppressing them by demanding the truth be told.
Why is competitive spirit so bad in a lady, and yet in men admirable and expected? If Harriet Quimby did something just to be the first at doing it, does it make her any less admirable? Does it make her selfish? Does it mean she should have just been content with having done it, despite the utter lack of recognition?
What is so offensive about a Brazilian man having patented what was the most significant invention of the century? Why does he get dismissed with a pat on the back like a child who wants attention? Why is it that every time the subject comes up, it is in the infantilizing form of “How cute! Brazilians think they’ve invented the airplane!”?
I visited Santos Dumont’s house in Petropolis a few years ago. It is exactly as one would expect a mad scientist’s house to look like: a thousand flights of stairs built in the most unusual ways, desks cluttered with tiny inventions of which the use was a mystery, designs, so many designs. It was a really tall house; it went high enough that you could look down to the city. I think it was built on the slope of a hill. Up there above all was a massive telescope, which he must have designed himself.
That house had a spirit of its own; it was still very much alive. It seemed like it was still waiting for him to come back. He did not die there- he died in Guarujá, in São Paulo, after his nephew picked him up in a Swiss sanatorium. He had left France when the First World War began and he’d been accused, due to his accent, of being a German spy. Dumont was mortally offended. By then he had already sworn off aviation, and in the following years his body started to decay alarmingly fast: it is believed he had Multiple Sclerosis. I didn’t know he had committed suicide until I started research for this article- I guess by then he was already forgotten.
We didn’t stay for long at his house. It was raining and I was tired and we wanted to hit the road that day. There aren’t any pictures of our visit; we went there to see something else, made a pit-stop. I felt bad for the house. I still do. It is perpetually about to take off, over the world.
There is no reliable evidence that the Wright Brothers created anything. Their invention was catapulted, and like a paper airplane it receded soon enough.
According to the International Federation of Aeronautics, founded in France in 1905, an aircraft should be able to take off under its own power in order to be considered as such. The Wright Brothers relied on heavy wind.
The 14-Bis was taken apart in the 1910s by Santos Dumont and had its motors, wheels and other essentials re-used in other improved aircrafts he’d designed.
In 2003, a replica of the Wright Flyer was to be launched in celebration of the “centennial” of the airplane, but it crashed and broke up in the mud before it could reach take-off.
Beatriz L. Seelaender was born in 1998 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and is the author of the novel “De Volta ao Vazio”. Seelaender has recently been trying her hand at English, and her work has been published in journals such as Grub Street, the Manifest-Station and the Feminine Collective. She is a student of Literature at the University of Sao Paulo.