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The aeronautics pioneer

120 years ago Júlio César Ribeiro de Souza discovered how to steer balloons

When the Paraense Júlio César Ribeiro de Souza (1843-1887) became obsessed by birds in the second half of the nineteenth century, the most well informed citizens of Belém did not find it strange. Ballooning was in fashion in Europe and there was a race to discover how to make the balloon manageable. Souza pored over the question beginning with the observation of birds: if one was to find the point of equilibrium that allows the birds to fly and plane in the air with little effort, one would find a mechanical solution that could also be applied to balloons.

The Brazilian ended up producing an original study that would be important for the history of aviation. Souza published his conclusions on the 1st of August 1880 in the newspaper A Província do Pará and, in the following year, presented the study Memória sobre a Navegação Aérea (Memorial on Aerial Navigation) at the now extinct Brazilian Polytechnic Institute of Rio de Janeiro. The discovery consisted of the following: man can also fly provided that he builds an inverted mechanical bird (head pointing down) with moveable rudder and wings.

The technical designation of this mechanical body given at that time is a spindle-shaped dissymmetric aerodynamic balloon – spindle-shaped because it has the form of a spindle screw and dissymmetric in reason of having a prow (front) greater that the stern (rear). Almost all the balloons constructed at that time had three forms: an inverted water drop, conical cylinder and symmetric spindle-shaped. Several ways were tried out in an attempt to give them movement and direction. However, they ascended only vertically, without direction. With the invention of the steam engine, machines with propellers were also installed in balloons, without success.

The discovery by the Brazilian changed everything. The balloon with a more bulbous prow that the stern moved forward, even against the wind. The appraisal of the Commission on the Section of Physical Sciences of the Brazilian Polytechnic Institute explained the phenomenon: “In the continuous action of beating the air resistance in the lateral planes (wings and rudder), gently inclined to the front, the balloon will produce all by itself, in calm weather or with a gentle wind, a horizontal movement”. In 1881 and subsidized by the state of Pará government, the Brazilian went off to Paris to build an experimental balloon to test his theory. Foreseeing problems, Souza patented his invention in ten countries and exposed his ideas to the French Society of Aerial Navigation.

At last, in the same year the balloon was ready in the workshop of Hilaire Lachambre, with 10 meters in length and 2 meters in diameter at the bow, and with horizontal wings and rudder. Souza named it Le Victoria in homage to his wife, Victoria Filomena do Vale, and on the 8th and the 12th of November, the invention was successfully tested before all of the French press. Once back in Brazil, the inventor tried to raise money to construct a large size balloon, already under order in Paris, which he would call Santa Maria de Belém. However, the experience was not repeated because of financial and technical problems.In August of 1884, Souza got to know that the Frenchmen Charles Renard and Arthur Constantin Krebs had constructed the dirigible balloon La France based on the principles of Le Victoria. Renard and Krebs had assisted Souza’s conference in Paris and had followed the construction of the Brazilian balloon in Lachambre’s workshop.

“The invention had been patented in France, something which constituted industrial theft” says the historian Fernando Medina do Amaral, now dead, in his book Júlio César, the True Architect of Aeronautics, in which he made a documental reconstruction of the trajectory of the Brazilian. In vain, Souza still attempted to fight to be recognized as the creator of the dirigible balloon. On returning to Belém, the inventor died in 1887. French and Germans continued to improve on new dirigible balloons until 100 years ago when the Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont flew around the Eiffel Tower in Paris, in the dirigible balloon Nº 6. With his deed, Dumont gained the Deutsch Award, created for whoever could do the round trip in 30 minutes, and five years later he would fly in an aircraft heavier than air. Proof that, in spite of the oblivion, the discoveries of Souza were not lost.