by: Jason Gilbert '09
Sure, Alberto Santos-Dumont has an incredible name; but why did we choose him as the namesake for our prize in student innovation?
Santos-Dumont is best known as a leader in turn-of-the-century flight--not that we want students building hydrogen gas-powered balloons the size of Olympic swimming pools (we don't), but rather, we are looking for those undergraduates who exhibit the inventiveness, curiosity, and unique vision of this Brazilian aviator, creator, and fearless experimenter.
Alberto Santos-Dumont was born in 1874 in a town named Palmira, now called Santos-Dumont in his honor. This is the kind of drive and ingenuity we are looking for: the kind that gets your hometown named after you in your honor (those exceptional students whose hometowns are already named after them are still eligible).
Alberto studied in the Colégio Culto à Ciência and later at the Escola de Minas (the Princeton School of Engineering had yet to be established) before moving to France to study independently in 1888.
Though not officially a Princetonian, we like to imagine Santos-Dumont as a member of the great Princeton Class of 1894 for three reasons:
1: Young Alberto would have made a terrific representative for Princeton at the Chicago World's Fair of 1894. The University had set up a booth with an electrical apparatus related to the telegraph made by Princeton Professor Joseph Henry, and Santos-Dumont '94 would have ably and knowledgeably illustrated Henry's complicated electro-transmission machine. What did you do with your intersession?
2: The 1893 football team--"The Perfect Team"--filled 5 of 11 spots on that year's All-America team, and Santos-Dumont, a strapping young man, would certainly have been the 6th. And speaking of innovation, that 1893 squad invented a football play still in use today: the forward pass. Had Santos-Dumont matriculated at Princeton, the team would have been running Hail Marys and Flea Flickers by '91.
3: While Harvardians and the Yalies were scrambling to defend the Forward Pass, the Princeton student government had figured out how to defend passing notes. In 1893, the Honor Code, another Princeton innovation still in use today, was implemented. The abnormal yet effective system was made necessary as Alberto "The One-Man Honor Enforcer" Santos-Dumont was set to graduate the following year.
Santos-Dumont's actual accomplishments are just as impressive. In a seven year span, he designed and constructed 7 unique dirigibles, commonly piloting them around Paris and touching down in front of fashionable restaurants to grab a bite to eat (something that President Tilghman still does on late night trips to Hoagie Haven). In 1901 he won the prestigious Deutsche de la Meurthe Prize, a contest that called for flying from the Parc St. Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in under thirty minutes--a round trip distance of 11 kilometers, or the distance from Nassau Hall to Forbes College.
Having conquered balloon flights at least a hundred years before that grumpy old man from Up, and now an international celebrity, Santos-Dumont turned his attention to heavier-than-air aircrafts. Creative designs for airplanes, biplanes, and helicopters emerged naturally from his sprightly mind; and in October of 1906 Santos-Dumont flew 60 meters at a height of 10 meters to become the first European man in flight. Though the Wright brothers had launched Flyer I at Kitty Hawk three years earlier, Santos-Dumont is credited with inventing the airplane wheels (as opposed to the Flyer's launch apparatus, a catapult) and also the forerunners to the aileron wings. In summary, though the Wright Brothers were first, Santos-Dumont came later, improved greatly on their model, and excelled in a way that the Wrights never would. Can you think of any rivalry that this mirrors?
Santos-Dumont was an innovator among innovators, an endlessly creative, inspiring, and under-recognized figure in the history of trailblazers and vanguards. The Santos-Dumont Prize is for that student who embodies this great aviator's inventive spirit today at Princeton; nominees do not have to be tinkerers or engineers like Alberto Santos-Dumont, but they should have conceived of a new event, program, initiative, or idea at Princeton that, like Santos-Dumont's early aircrafts, truly soars.