I try not to seek out the “best” of anything. The idea of best is so subjective, it becomes useless. Try picking a “best” car, for example. I’ll save you the hassle: you can’t. But there is one exception. It’s for the overall concept of personal transportation, and the person who did it best was Alberto Santos-Dumont.
Alberto Santos-Dumont (he preferred the equals sign to a hyphen, so, what the hell, I’ll write it that way from here on out) was one of the pioneers of early aviation, developing the world’s first practical steerable powered dirigible blimps and later moving to heaver-than-air craft, making the first fixed-wing aircraft flight in Europe. These contributions are well-documented, but I want to focus more specifically on his unique personal transportation solutions, which I think represent the absolute best situation of any person in history, and possibly of any person in the foreseeable future.
I normally write about cars, and for most of us that represents the core of our personal transportation solution. For some of us, that solution also includes subways or rail travel for intra-city travel, and if we have to go long distances, we’ll take flights on large commercial airliners.
Santos=Dumont had a very different approach. He lived in Paris, and in addition to the petrol and electric automobiles he owned, he got around town in a small, powered, steerable dirigible of his own design. He did this mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, long before there were any inklings of ideas about air-traffic control laws, so Santos=Dumont had free run to float over the city at rooftop level, stopping in at cafés or even his own apartment, tooling around the Paris airspace like he fucking owned the place. Which he basically did, in any way that matters.
Just think about it for a second: say you live in one of the greatest cities in the world, but like all great cities, it’s dense, crowded, and a pain to get around in. What would be the ideal way to get around? Through the air! You wouldn’t need outright speed, but you would want something that could hover indefinitely, stop and manoeuvre with the agility of a car, and make you look like King Badass’s Boss’s cool Dad when you got in and out of it. A personal blimp fits all these criteria perfectly.
Some background on Alberto Santos=Dumont is probably worth talking about now, if only so you can make the inevitable Bruce Wayne/Batman associations in your head. Santos=Dumont was the son of a very wealthy Brazilian coffee grower. It was in his father’s extensive and highly innovative coffee fields that young albert first encountered steam driven machinery and even a locomotive, which fascinated him.
In 1891, he travelled to Paris with his family, where he had one goal. As he said in his book My Airships:
“I am going to Paris to see the new things — steerable balloons and automobiles!”
And boy did he see those new things. He became an avid automobile enthusiast, and that enthusiasm eventually led to the idea to use a small automotive-type gasoline engine to power a balloon. As he told a reporter for Century magazine in 1901,
“I got my first idea of putting an automobile motor under a cigar-shaped balloon filled with hydrogen gas while returning from the Paris-Amsterdam automobile race in 1897,”
This initial idea led to a series of increasingly advanced dirigibles, which he simply named Santos-Dumont No.1 through No.10. Among the innovations he came up with while developing his airships were lightweight stiffening frames and structures, directional rudders, light and efficient gas engines (some adapted from cars of the era), and a system of shifting weights that allowed him to adjust the pitch of the airship to ascend or descend without having to release the precious and dangerous hydrogen or deal with dropping or adding ballast.
Oh, and he also independently inspired the idea of a wristwatch, just in case you were on the fence about how fundamentally amazing this guy was. As Wikipedia tells us:
Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance during flight. Santos-Dumont then asked Cartier to come up with an alternative that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls. Cartier went to work on the problem and the result was a watch with a leather band and a small buckle, to be worn on the wrist.
Santos=Dumont’s No.6 airship was used to win the Deutch Prize, which was to be awarded to the first steerable, powered airship to be able to make the 6.8 mile round trip between the Eiffel Tower and the Parc de Saint Cloud in Paris in 30 minutes or less. Santos=Dumont rounded the Eiffel Tower in only nine minutes and all was looking great when he had engine trouble, causing the engine to stall.
He couldn’t restart the engine from his control basket, so he had to shimmy across the flimsy, skeletal airframe to the engine, without any safety harnesses or anything, with only the raw badassium secreting from his pores to protect him. He eventually got the engine restarted, and managed to finish the course with only 30 seconds to spare.
After a bit of timing controversy, Santos=Dumont’s attempt was declared successful, and he was awarded a substantial prize of 125,000 francs. Here’s what he did with the money:
The money of the prize, amounting in all to 125,000 francs, I did not desire to keep. I, therefore, divided it into unequal parts. The greater sum, of 75,000 francs, I handed over to the Prefect of Police of Paris to be used for the deserving poor. The balance I distributed among my employees, who had been so long with me and to whose devotion I was glad to pay this tribute.
Are you f**king kidding me? He wins a daredevil’s prize by the skin of his teeth, after a death-defying mid-race aerial repair, in an airship he designed himself, and he divides his prize money between the poor folks of the city and his own crew and mechanics? The man’s made of weaponised class-actium.
Still, as incredible as his experimental and racing airships were, the one I’m most interested in is his No.9 airship, the one that afforded him the status of Best Personal Transportation in History. Santos=Dumont describes his reasons for building the very small airship in his book, and along the way provides a compelling argument for electric city-cars as well:
Once I was enamoured of high-power petroleum automobiles: they can go at express-train speed to any part of Europe, finding fuel in any village. “I can go to Moscow or Lisbon!” I said to myself. But when I discovered that I did not want to go to Moscow or to Lisbon the small and handy electric runabout in which I do my errands about Paris and the Bois proved more satisfactory.
Speaking from the standpoint of my pleasure and convenience as a Parisian my air-ship experience has been similar. When the balloon and motor of my 60 horse-power “No. 7” were completed I said to myself: “I can race any air-ship that is likely to be built!” But when I found that, in spite of the forfeits I paid into the Aéro Club’s treasury, there was no one ready to race with me I determined to build a small air-ship runabout for my pleasure and convenience only. In it I would pass the time while waiting for the future to bring forth competitions worthy of my race craft.
So I built my “No. 9,” the smallest of possible dirigibles, yet very practical indeed.
So that’s basically what airship No.9 was: a little urban runabout. It only had a 3 HP motor and a stubby, egg-shaped gas bag, but it could make 15 or so MPH and it could hover and fly, and that’s pretty much all it needed to do to be the absolute best way to get about any city, ever.
No traffic, no parking hassles, you make your entrance to the fashionable cafés by descending from the sky — it’s sort of like Alberto managed to turn his life into the gleaming one described by the Jules Verne books he read as a kid while the rest of the world was stuck in horse shit and coal smoke.
Just read this sentence from My Airships:
So I reached my corner, to which I pointed my stem, and descended very gently. Two servants caught, steadied, and held the air-ship, while I mounted to my apartment for a cup of coffee. From my round bay window at the corner I looked down upon the air-ship. Were I to receive the municipal permission it would not be difficult to build an ornamental landing-stage out from that window.
Yes, he’s just casually talking about taking a jaunt to his upper-story apartment in his airship to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee while considering building an airship landing-stage on his balcony. Sorry, an ornamental landing-stage.
Really, when you’re the only person in a major city who’s able to get around town in a personal airship, you’ve got it all figured out, period. Until someone develops a personal transporter that lets them beam from location to location in an instant, nobody’s going to beat Santos=Dumont’s situation in Paris from around 1899-1905. And honestly, even if teleportation does become possible, I really doubt it’ll be developed by one person who’ll just use it at will as their own personal way of getting around. I don’t really think Santos=Dumont’s situation can be beat.
Alberto’s little No.9 also became the first powered aircraft to be piloted by a woman, a Cuban-American named Aida de Acosta. Aida took three flying lessons from Santos=Dumont, and flew solo in 1903, about six months before the Wright brother’s first flight. Santos=Dumont seemed to have had some sort of crush on the woman as well, keeping a picture of her on his desk throughout his life, even though the two never saw one another again.
Despite being arguably the coolest guy in human history (he even had a signature hat), Santos=Dumont’s life ended on a sad note. Depressed by what seems to have been multiple sclerosis and despondent over the use of aircraft in warfare, Santos=Dumont hung himself in 1932.
While his life had a tragic end, I much prefer to think of him in his prime, a dapper man in a Panama hat descending a rope ladder from a blimp to a tavern, where he enjoys a beer and a croque monsieur before ascending back into the sky.