The Deutsch de la Meurthe was a French family known for its wealth and patronage in technology and philanthropy, having helped develop the industrial oils industry in France. In 1845 Alexander Deutsch founded a company for the processing and marketing of vegetable oils in La Villette, then an independent commune of Paris. With the discovery of petroleum oil in Pennsylvania in 1859, Deutsch began to study and develop the use of petroleum oils in France. In 1877 Deutsch brought his two sons, Henri and Emile, into the family business, which bought a refinery in Rouen in 1881 and another in St. Loubès in Gironde in 1883. In 1889, in association with the Rothschild brothers, oil refining began in Spain. At this time Alexander added the "de la Meurthe" to the family name.
Henri recognized that the future of petroleum sales depended on the development of small internal-combustion engines, and so he promoted automobile development (he presented French President Marie François Sadi Carnot with an automobile) and also became interested in aviation. Together with Ernest Archdeacon he founded the Aéro-Club de France to promote the new technologies. In order to do this, he used some of his wealth to create a number of monetary prizes as incentives for aviators to achieve certain aviation milestones.
In 1906 Deutsch entered into a partnership with Wilbur Wright and Hart Berg to establish a company in France to supply a Wright aircraft to the French government. Deutsch financed the venture by buying the only block of shares to be sold in France, and used his influence with the French government. The effort fell through, however.
He supported Lazare Weiller, who bought the patents of the Wright brothers and organized demonstration flights piloted by Wilbur Wright in Le Mans which began on 8 August 1908. Deutsch de la Meurthe also invested in aircraft builders Société Astra (1909) and Nieuport (1911), and commissioned the construction of aircraft, including the Blériot XXIV "Limousine and the Voisin 'Aero-Yacht'.
At the end of May 1909, Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe offered the University of Paris a sum of 500,000 francs and an annual pension of 15,000 francs for the creation and maintenance of the Institute Aérotechnique at Saint-Cyr-l'École, which would continue the theoretical research and development of air transport aircraft. It was later integrated into the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.
Although an enthusiastic promoter of heavier-than air flight, De la Meurthe did not make his first flight in an airplane until May 1911, when he was taken for a flight in a Blériot monoplane piloted by Alfred Leblanc. On 21 May 1911, Deutsch was injured and French Minister of War Maurice Berteaux was killed when a Train monoplane crashed at the beginning of the 1911 Paris to Madrid air race.
Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe was made Commander of the Legion of Honor on November 20, 1912.
In April 1900, Henri offered the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize, also simply known as the Deutsch prize, of 100,000 francs to the first machine capable of flying a round trip from the Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and back in less than thirty minutes. The winner of the prize needed to maintain an average ground speed of at least 22 km/h (14 mph) to cover the round trip distance of 11 km (6.8 mi) in the allotted time. The prize was to be available from May 1, 1900 to October 1, 1903.
To win the prize, Alberto Santos-Dumont decided to build the Santos-Dumont No. 5, a larger airship than his earlier craft. On August 8, 1901 during one of his attempts, the dirigible began to lose hydrogen gas. It started to descend and was unable to clear the roof of the Trocadero Hotel. Santos-Dumont was left hanging in a basket from the side of the hotel. With the help of the Paris fire brigade he climbed to the roof without injury.
On October 19, 1901, after several attempts and trials, Santos-Dumont launched his Number 6 airship at 2:30 pm. After only nine minutes of flight, Santos-Dumont had rounded the Eiffel Tower, but then suffered an engine failure. To restart the engine, he had to climb back over the gondola rail without a safety harness. The attempt was successful, and he crossed the finish line in 29 minutes 30 seconds. However, there was a short delay before his mooring line was secured, and at first the adjudicating committee refused him the prize, despite de la Meurthe, who was present, declaring himself satisfied. This caused a public outcry from the crowds watching the flight, as well as comment in the press. However a face-saving compromise was reached, and Santos-Dumont was awarded the prize. In a charitable gesture, he gave half the prize to his crew and then donated the other half to the poor of Paris.
In 1904, Deutsch de la Meurthe in collaboration with Ernest Archdeacon created the Grand Prix d'Aviation (also known as the "Deutsch-Archdeacon Prize"), a prize of 50,000 francs for the first person to fly a circular 1-kilometer course in a heavier-than-air craft. It was won on January 13, 1908 by Henry Farman flying a Voisin biplane at Issy-les-Moulineaux in a time of 1 minute 28 seconds, then a distance and speed record since the flights of the Wright Brothers had not been officially witnessed.
This speed race was held intermittently from 1912-1936, with 20,000 francs offered first by Deutsch, later by the Aéro-Club de France.