Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight

In This Review

Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight

By Paul Hoffman
Hyperion Press, 2003
369 pp. $24.95
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This marvelously evocative account chronicles the strange, wonderful, and at times tortured career of Brazil's diminutive aeronautical pioneer Santos-Dumont, who was the toast of Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, when he piloted the one-man dirigible he had invented over the French capital, occasionally crashing into its rooftops. Santos-Dumont was so popular that his "dapper countenance," Hoffman writes, "stared out from cigar boxes, match boxes and dinner plates." The London Times declared in 1901 that when names "of those who have occupied outstanding positions in the world have been forgotten, there will be a name that will remain in our memory, that of Santos-Dumont." This was not to be, of course. In Brazil, he remains a hero of mythic proportions, but elsewhere this inventive and flamboyant pioneer has long been forgotten. When the secretive Wright brothers eventually convinced European skeptics that they were indeed the heroes of aviation by making a two-and-a-half-hour-long flight in 1908, Santos-Dumont found that his previously adoring public quickly abandoned him. Diagnosed at 36 with multiple sclerosis, Santos-Dumont also became deeply depressed at the use of what he called his "babies" for aerial bombardment during World War I. Back in Brazil, with the days of his high life in Paris long gone, he committed suicide in 1932. It is an appropriate moment to be reminded of this remarkable South American pioneer who a century ago used his fertile mind, ingenuity, and the resources of his Brazilian coffee plantations to create the first powered flying machines.

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