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date: 31 October 2020

Alberto Santos-Dumont and Brazilian Aviationlocked

  • Felipe Fernandes CruzFelipe Fernandes CruzDepartment of History, Tulane University

Summary

Aviation has played a unique role in the history of Brazil, beginning with the life of Alberto Santos-Dumont. Most Brazilians consider him to be the true inventor of the airplane over the North American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. Born in the province of Minas Gerais in 1873, he became a global celebrity in the early 1900s when he designed, built, and piloted several of his dirigibles and airplanes in Paris. He won major prizes for his aeronautical feats, such as the Deutsch de La Meurthe prize for an aerial circumnavigation of the Eiffel Tower. Santos-Dumont is a beloved national hero in Brazil. The potent symbolism of his life was often invoked in calls for the development of Brazilian aviation.

Throughout the 20th century, aviation was hailed as a technological panacea for Brazil’s problems. Many Brazilians thought its development could boost homegrown industry and technology, and that aviation would in turn enable Brazil to conquer its frontiers by air. The potential to connect vast and often inaccessible territories by air was very attractive to a state with a weak grip on its frontiers. The dictatorial government of Getúlio Vargas, for instance, used propaganda and cultural programs to engender great excitement among Brazilians for the mass development of national aviation.

This notion of frontier conquest by air played a major role in the development of aeronautical technology in Brazil, creating a unique history of frontier expansion and interaction with indigenous peoples. Starting in 1969, Brazil also became a major exporter of airplanes. Originally a state-owned company, the now privatized EMBRAER is one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers, selling military, airline and private jet aircraft around the world.

Subjects

  • Latin American History
  • Social and Cultural History
  • History of Science and Technology

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