A Brazilian by birth, Santos-Dumont began in Paris in the year 1898 to make history, which he subsequently wrote. His book, My Airships, is a record of his eight years of work on lighter-than-air machines, a period in which he constructed no less than fourteen dirigible balloons, beginning with a cubic capacity of 6,350 feet, and an engine of 3 horse-power, and rising to a cubic capacity of 71,000 feet on the tenth dirigible he constructed, and an engine of 60 horse-power, which was fitted to the seventh machine in order of construction, the one which he built after winning the Deutsch Prize.

The student of dirigible construction is recommended to Santos-Dumont's own book not only as a full record of his work, but also as one of the best stories of aerial navigation that has ever been written. Throughout all his experiments, he adhered to the non-rigid type; his first dirigible made its first flight on September 18th, 1898, starting from the Jardin d'Acclimatation to the west of Paris; he calculated that his 3 horse-power engine would yield sufficient power to enable him to steer clear of the trees with which the starting-point was surrounded, but, yielding to the advice of professional aeronauts who were present, with regard to the placing of the dirigible for his start, he tore the envelope against the trees. Two days later, having repaired the balloon, he made an ascent of 1,300 feet. In descending, the hydrogen left in the balloon contracted, and Santos-Dumont narrowly escaped a serious accident in coming to the ground.

His second machine, built in the early spring of 1899, held over 7,000 cubic feet of gas and gave a further 44 lbs. of ascensional force. The balloon envelope was very long and very narrow; the first attempt at flight was made in wind and rain, and the weather caused sufficient contraction of the hydrogen for a wind gust to double the machine up and toss it into the trees near its starting-point. The inventor immediately set about the construction of 'Santos-Dumont No. 3,' on which he made a number of successful flights, beginning on November 13th, 1899. On the last of his flights, he lost the rudder of the machine and made a fortunate landing at Ivry. He did not repair the balloon, considering it too clumsy in form and its motor too small. Consequently No. 4 was constructed, being finished on the 1st, August, 1900. It had a cubic capacity of 14,800 feet, a length of 129 feet and greatest diameter of 16.7 feet, the power plant being a 7 horse-power Buchet motor. Santos-Dumont sat on a bicycle saddle fixed to the long bar suspended under the machine, which also supported motor propeller, ballast; and fuel. The experiment of placing the propeller at the stem instead of at the stern was tried, and the motor gave it a speed of 100 revolutions per minute. Professor Langley witnessed the trials of the machine, which proved before the members of the International Congress of Aeronautics, on September 19th, that it was capable of holding its own against a strong wind.

Finding that the cords with which his dirigible balloon cars were suspended offered almost as much resistance to the air as did the balloon itself, Santos-Dumont substituted piano wire and found that the alteration constituted greater progress than many a more showy device. He altered the shape and size of his No. 4 to a certain extent and fitted a motor of 12 horse-power. Gravity was controlled by shifting weights worked by a cord; rudder and propeller were both placed at the stern. In Santos-Dumont's book there is a certain amount of confusion between the No. 4 and No. 5 airships, until he explains that 'No. 5' is the reconstructed 'No. 4.' It was with No. 5 that he won the Encouragement Prize presented by the Scientific Commission of the Paris Aero Club. This he devoted to the first aeronaut who between May and October of 1900 should start from St Cloud, round the Eiffel Tower, and return. If not won in that year, the prize was to remain open the following year from May 1st to October 1st, and so on annually until won. This was a simplification of the conditions of the Deutsch Prize itself, the winning of which involved a journey of 11 kilometres in 30 minutes.

The Santos-Dumont No. 5, which was in reality the modified No. 4 with new keel, motor, and propeller, did the course of the Deutsch Prize, but with it Santos-Dumont made no attempt to win the prize until July of 1901, when he completed the course in 40 minutes, but tore his balloon in landing. On the 8th August, with his balloon leaking, he made a second attempt, and narrowly escaped disaster, the airship being entirely wrecked. Thereupon he built No. 6 with a cubic capacity of 22,239 feet and a lifting power of 1,518 lbs.

With this machine he won the Deutsch Prize on October 19th, 1901, starting with the disadvantage of a side wind of 20 feet per second. He reached the Eiffel Tower in 9 minutes and, through miscalculating his turn, only just missed colliding with it. He got No. 6 under control again and succeeded in getting back to his starting-point in 29 1/2 minutes, thus winning the 125,000 francs which constituted the Deutsch Prize, together with a similar sum granted to him by the Brazilian Government for the exploit. The greater part of this money was given by Santos-Dumont to charities.

He went on building after this until he had made fourteen non-rigid dirigibles; of these No. 12 was placed at the disposal of the military authorities, while the rest, except for one that was sold to an American and made only one trip, were matters of experiment for their maker. His conclusions from his experiments may be gathered from his own work: -

'On Friday, 31st July, 1903, Commandant Hirschauer and Lieutenant-Colonel Bourdeaux spent the afternoon with me at my airship station at Neuilly St James, where I had my three newest airships - the racing 'No. 7,' the omnibus 'No. 10,' and the runabout 'No. 9' - ready for their study. Briefly, I may say that the opinions expressed by the representatives of the Minister of War were so unreservedly favourable that a practical test of a novel character was decided to be made. Should the airship chosen pass successfully through it the result will be conclusive of its military value.

'Now that these particular experiments are leaving my exclusively private control I will say no more of them than what has been already published in the French press. The test will probably consist of an attempt to enter one of the French frontier towns, such as Belfort or Nancy, on the same day that the airship leaves Paris. It will not, of course, be necessary to make the whole journey in the airship. A military railway wagon may be assigned to carry it, with its balloon uninflated, with tubes of hydrogen to fill it, and with all the necessary machinery and instruments arranged beside it. At some station a short distance from the town to be entered the wagon may be uncoupled from the train, and a sufficient number of soldiers accompanying the officers will unload the airship and its appliances, transport the whole to the nearest open space, and at once begin inflating the balloon. Within two hours from quitting the train the airship may be ready for its flight to the interior of the technically-besieged town.

'Such may be the outline of the task - a task presented imperiously to French balloonists by the events of 1870-1, and which all the devotion and science of the Tissandier brothers failed to accomplish. To-day the problem may be set with better hope of success. All the essential difficulties may be revived by the marking out of a hostile zone around the town that must be entered; from beyond the outer edge of this zone, then, the airship will rise and take its flight - across it.

'Will the airship be able to rise out of rifle range? I have always been the first to insist that the normal place of the airship is in low altitudes, and I shall have written this book to little purpose if I have not shown the reader the real dangers attending any brusque vertical mounting to considerable heights. For this we have the terrible Severo accident before our eyes. In particular, I have expressed astonishment at hearing of experimenters rising to these altitudes without adequate purpose in their early stages of experience with dirigible balloons. All this is very different, however, from a reasoned, cautious mounting, whose necessity has been foreseen and prepared for.'

Probably owing to the fact that his engines were not of sufficient power, Santos-Dumont cannot be said to have solved the problem of the military airship, although the French Government bought one of his vessels. At the same time, he accomplished much in furthering and inciting experiment with dirigible airships, and he will always rank high among the pioneers of aerostation. His experiments might have gone further had not the Wright brothers' success in America and French interest in the problem of the heavier-than-air machine turned him from the study of dirigibles to that of the aeroplane, in which also he takes high rank among the pioneers, leaving the construction of a successful military dirigible to such men as the Lebaudy brothers, Major Parseval, and Zeppelin.