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The feats of a flying priest

Three hundred years ago, Bartolomeu de Gusmão proved that an object heavier than air could fly

Painting of Gusmão working...

Oil on canvas by Bernardino de Souza Pereira (1940) / Paulista Museum Painting of Gusmão working…Oil on canvas by Bernardino de Souza Pereira (1940) / Paulista Museum

In the space of a few minutes, the atmosphere in the Ambassadors’ Room of the Palace, in Lisbon, fell from frightened to pathetic. When the small balloon made out of thick brownish paper floated up, propelled by the hot air from a small flame in a clay dish, King João V, his family, part of the Portuguese court and their guests were all frankly surprised. However, when it had risen four meters into the air, the invention was brought down in a hurry by two servants who were afraid that the drapes might catch fire. This incident did not erase the great scientific innovation revealed on August 5, 1709: the first ever proof that something heavier than air could fly. The author of the experiment, Father Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão (1685-1724) was only 24 and received a patent from the king, who granted him the privilege of exploiting  “the instrument to move the air around.”

That was Gusmão’s second attempt to demonstrate his balloon experiments. During the first, on 3 August 1709, the paper caught fire while still on the ground. Two days later, he was successful. And there was a third flight, outdoors, next to the Casa do Forte edifice –  the balloon rose up high and fell after a while, when the fire went out. The first two experiments were witnessed by the apostolic nuncio in Lisbon, Cardinal Michelangelo Conte, later Pope Innocent XIII, who reported on these facts by letter to the State Secretariat of the Vatican.

...and presenting himself to King João

Oil on canvas by Bernardino de Souza Pereira (1940) / Paulista Museum …and presenting himself to King JoãoOil on canvas by Bernardino de Souza Pereira (1940) / Paulista Museum

Despite having his work acknowledged by church and king, Gusmão was often the target of criticism and satire. “The people who became famous for the invention were the French brothers Joseph Michel and Jaques Étienne Montgolfier, when they presented a linen balloon with a 32-meter circumference, which rose in 1783, using the same principle as Gusmão’s,” says Carlos Alberto Filgueiras, coordinator of the Science History Program of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a senior professor at this institution’s Chemistry Institute.

Bartolomeu Lourenço was born in what was then the village of Santos, on the coast of present-day São Paulo state. He added Gusmão to his name in honor of a Portuguese Jesuit, Alexandre de Gusmão, founder of the school and seminary of Our Lady of Belém, in the village that was to become the town of Cachoeira, in the state of Bahia, to where the family had moved. One of Bartolomeu’s brothers, ten years younger than him, was given the same name as this educator and became secretary to King João V. At the seminary, the young inventor created a system – which he called a “hydraulic lamb” – to pump water from the stream to the school. “He joined roof tiles with cement, forming original piping. Then he dammed the river by means of some locks and pumped the water 100 meters up to the seminary,” tells us Laurete Godoy, who researches Gusmão’s life and who has written several books for youngsters about Santos-Dumont, such as Santos-Dumont, o sonho que criou asas (Editora Meca publishing house).

Drawing of a “flying machine” published in 1868; author unknown

General Library of the University of Coimbra Drawing of a “flying machine” published in 1868; author unknownGeneral Library of the University of Coimbra

Gusmão was ordained a priest while still in Bahia and left for Lisbon between 1708 and 1709, never to return to Brazil. At the University of Coimbra, he studied science and taught. Oddly enough, he did not pursue his balloon experiments further, perhaps fearful of the ongoing satire to which he was subjected. Gusmão died in Toledo, Spain, at 39, after fleeing Portugal, although the reasons for this are not entirely known, to this day. But first he burnt his archives, which made it impossible to learn more about his life and his other work. In 1901, Santos-Dumont concluded the work of the flying priest, as Gusmão became known, and  the Montgolfier brothers, when he built the first hot air balloon.