On October 19, 1901, Alberto Santos=Dumont (he was fond of using an equals sign, not a hyphen, to honor his Brazilian and French heritage equally) climbed to the roof of the Trocadero Hotel. He’d only been flying for nine minutes when he made it to the Eiffel Tower, suspended in glory by hydrogen gas and piano wire. But then his airship began to deflate, and well, that’s how he ended up on the roof of the Trocadero Hotel.
He won the prize on his next try, and that’s what everyone remembers him for. And by everyone, I mean chiefly Brazilians, who consider him the first in flight. (You can fight about it here if you must.) He gave half the prize money to his crew and the other half to the poor of Paris. He wasn’t in it for the money. He had plenty of that, as the heir to a coffee empire. But a cash prize meant someone valued his invention, that it counted for something before the world. It made him an international celebrity, but I think he rather enjoyed being a local celebrity, riding his dirigible to downtown Paris and parking it outside a café while he had lunch. And that’s nice and all, and he was a brilliant innovator, but I can’t get over that moment when he was dangling from a basket on the side of the Trocadero Hotel and he thought, I bet I know how to get this right next time.