We have an unfortunate tendency when recording history to minimize those people who finish second in a race. Wilbur and Orville Wright are justifiably lauded for pioneering heavier than air flight in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, but the names of others are remembered only by aviation enthusiasts. Outside of his native Brazil, where he celebrated as nothing short of a national hero, Alberto Santos-Dumont has been all but forgotten. It is an ignominious fate for a man who was once one of the most famous men on the planet.
In contrast to the secretive Wrights, the eccentric Santos-Dumont was the very personification of the people that we imagine recklessly threw themselves into the air in their attempts to conquer the skies. Obsessed by the idea of flight at an early age and lucky enough to have been born into wealth, Santos-Dumont indulged in his pursuit with an unequaled passion. Though Paul Hoffman’s Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight (Hyperion, 369 pages, $24.95) isn’t the first to chronicle his story, it’s easily the most entertaining.
Santos-Dumont arrived in Paris in 1891 at the age of 18 and a few years later took his first balloon trip. It wasn’t until 1898 that he designed and flew a balloon that carried a small engine and could be steered. It was the start of a process that saw him continually refine his designs, creating ever more advanced versions capable of traveling farther distances at greater speeds. It’s not surprising to understand why he believed that lighter than air flight would remain state of the art aviation.
Though we think of ballooning as a serene sport, it was quite dangerous. By the time Santos-Dumont appeared on the scene, ballooning had taken the lives of hundreds of people, often in grisly crashes, falls or explosions. Santos-Dumont himself had several narrow escapes that only served to motivate him to create even more stable designs. Each daring flight spread his name around the world as breathless newspaper accounts chronicled his latest feat.
Though he tended to exaggerate his exploits or at least bend the truth, Santos-Dumont hardly needed to. The flamboyant aviator — who was always turned out in fashionable clothes whether he was working on an engine in his workshop or hosting elaborate dinner parties — even constructed his own airship for travel around Paris, parking it at restaurants and shops, becoming the only man in history to own a personal flying craft as science fiction writers later predicted would be owned by everyone. Each time he took to the skies he pushed the boundaries of flight and helped established aviation as modern science.
As Hoffman illustrates, however, Santos-Dumont’s preoccupation with lighter than air flight blinded him to its weaknesses and the possibilities of heavier than air flight. By 1903 he considered himself the unrivaled master of the air, the same year the Wright brothers launched their first plane in secret — so secret that when Santos-Dumont flew his first airplane in 1906 everybody believed that he had been the first to do so. His fame quickly evaporated after the Wright brothers demonstrated their superior technology in Europe and Santos-Dumont eventually fell into a world of depression and ill-health, devastated by the knowledge that aircraft were being used for warfare instead of bringing the world closer together.
“I use a knife to slice gruyere. But it can also be used to stab someone. I was a fool to be thinking only of the cheese,” said Santos-Dumont in 1915 after unsuccessfully attempting to convince governments to decommission their military aircraft.
Santos-Dumont pursued a technology that instantly became outdated the moment the Wright brothers flew their airplane and only belatedly joined the heavier than air revolution, but that doesn’t make his story any less important to history. As Wings of Madness proves, Santos-Dumont’s greatest contribution may have been more important than who flew first. His single-minded devotion to aviation and the benefits it would bring humanity inspired others to believe in the future of flight. Hoffman delivers a compelling and touching account of a man in love with an idea, that we would one day regularly enjoy the freedom of flight, a story that rightfully deserves to be better known.
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