Airline geeks like me may know this name as the inner-city airport in Rio de Janeiro, and also as the pioneer of aviation after whom the airport is named, and of whom Brazil is very proud. I am also proud to own his autograph, on a 1930s vintage timetable of Air Union, one of the progenitors of Air France.

Googling him recently, I found on Project Gutenberg, an online library of out-of-print books, was his My Airships, a 1904 volume of autobiography. This predates his involvement with heavier-than-air vehicles, for this man, living in Paris on the wealth of his family in Brazil, was a pioneer of both lighter and heavier-than-air development.

Wikipedia relates how this heir to a coffee fortune first witnessed human flight in a balloon in Sao Paulo in 1888, and on a later family visit to Paris became interested in internal-combustion engines. Already enthralled from reading Jules Verne’s novels, he settled in Paris in 1897 and became a racing driver and balloonist. Soon he was developing an internal-combustion engine for his motor-tricycle, which he adapted to make a balloon into a dirigible. In his No 3 airship, he circled the Eiffel Tower in 1899, and over the next few years he made a series of dirigibles, one of which he demonstrated at the St Louis Exposition in 1904.

After this period, he transferred his interest to heavier-than-air flight, His 14-bis was a biplane, using the layout of Australian Lawrence Hargrave’s gliders, but powered by a 24 hp Levavasseur engine, and with the pilot standing upright, which first flew on November 1906. By 1909 he had developed the Demoiselle 20 , considered the first ultralight in history and built in large numbers in various countries, cementing his fame as a major aviation pioneer. He survived a number of accidents, but is thought not to have piloted an aircraft again after he crashed in a Demoiselle in 1909. He did build a helicopter.

He retired to Brazil in 1918, where he built his house in Petropolis, a rural city in the hills near Rio de Janeiro. This is now open to the public, and is filled with domestic gadgets he designed, such as an alcohol-heated shower and an automatic washing-machine, showing off his inventive nature. He had been saddened by the use of aircraft in the war, and later in a civil war in Brazil, and died a suicide in 1932.

Robin Johnson