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

Wings of Madness is the engaging true story of the man who was once hailed worldwide as the conqueror of the air—Alberto Santos-Dumont. Because the Wright brothers worked in secrecy, word of their first flights had not reached Europe when Santos-Dumont took to the skies in 1906. The dashing and impeccably dressed aeronaut stunned and delighted Paris, barhopping around the city in a one-man dirigible he invented, circling above crowds and crashing into rooftops.

Yet Santos-Dumont was a frenzied genius tortured by the weight of his own creation. Wings of Madness is a riveting, brilliantly told story of this tormented man who helped to usher in the modern age and who epitomized the increasingly tortured spirit of the early twentieth century.

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"[Hoffman's] compassionate and colorful account... is likely to stand as the definitive biography of this...aeronautical pioneer." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Thorough and impressive...stylish and well-paced." —Los Angeles Times

"A compelling and touching account." —Christian Science Monitor

"As Hoffman so brilliantly tells the story...Santos-Dumont truly was a man like few others...a delight." —Simon Winchester, The New York Times

"When Hollywood gets its mitts on...Hoffman's riveting biography of...Santos-Dumont (1873-1932)—a man who would fly to dinner from his Paris apartment via his own personal dirigible, who won H.G. Wells and Jules Verne's admiration, who hosted dinner parties featuring impossibly tall chairs and tables to simulate dining in midair—it should make for an amazing flick." —Book Magazine

"If bravado, idealism and personality had played into it, Alberto Santos-Dumont had it all over the Wrights.... His life would make a far more interesting movie." —Orlando Sentinel

"In August 1914, Santos-Dumont burned his aeronautical papers—"every sketch, every blueprint, every congratulatory letter—after French neighbors labeled him a German spy. And, later, his sanatoriums discarded his medical records. Therefore, Hoffman traveled to five countries in his quest for interviews, photographs and archival materials. He even tracked down the aviator's heart, enshrined in a golden sphere on display in an air force academy museum in Brazil. Hoffman's compelling narrative reveals how Santos-Dumont, born in 1873 to a wealthy Brazilian coffee planter, took Paris by storm during Europe's belle epoque, when rapid advances in technology suggested that anything was possible." —San Francisco Chronicle

Excerpt from the Book

In December 1903, an eleven-year resident of Paris, the Brazilian aeronautical pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, held a small holiday party in his high-ceilinged apartment on the Champs-Elysées. Louis Cartier, the jeweler, was there, as was Princess Isabel, the daughter of the last emperor of Brazil. The other attendees can only be surmised because there was no printed guest list, but his regular dining partners and confidantes included George Goursat, the flamboyant writer and cartoonist who drew caricatures of the rich and famous on the walls of the city's fanciest restaurants; Gustave Eiffel, the architect of the eponymous tower; Antonio Prado Jr., the son of the Brazilian ambassador; two or three Rothschilds, who first met their thirty-year-old host when his experimental airship crashed in their gardens; the Empress Eugénie, Napoleon III's reclusive widow; and assorted kings, queens, dukes, and duchesses too numerous to name.

When Santos-Dumont's butler ushered the guests into the dining room, they were amused to find that they had to climb a step ladder so that they could sit on high chairs positioned around a table taller than they were. But they were not surprised. Since the late 1890s Santos-Dumont had been giving "aerial dinner parties." The first ones were held at an ordinary table and chairs suspended by wire from the ceiling. This worked when the hundred-pound Santos-Dumont dined alone, but when a group assembled, the ceiling gave way under their collective weight. Santos-Dumont was a skilled craftsman, who had learned wood-working from the men on his father's coffee plantation, so he built the long-legged tables and chairs that had become a fixture of his apartment ever since. At the first elevated soirees, his guests, between sips of milky green absinthe, invariably asked what the point of the high table was. And their shy host, who preferred to let others do the talking, would run his bejeweled fingers through his jet-black hair, which was parted in the middle, in a style seen almost exclusively on women, and impishly explain that they were dining aloft so that they could imagine what life was like in a flying machine. The guests laughed. Flying machines did not exist in the 1890s, and received scientific wisdom said that they never would. Santos-Dumont ignored the snickering and insisted that they would soon be commonplace.

Hot-air balloons, to be sure, were a familar sight in the skies of fin de siecle Paris, but they were not flying machines. With no source of power, these large floating orbs—they were described as spherical although they actually had the shape of an inverted pear—were entirely at the mercy of the wind. By the turn of the century, Santos-Dumont changed that. He strapped an automobile engine and propeller to the balloon and, to make it aerodynamically efficient, switched its shape to that of a sleek cigar. On October 19, 1901, thousands of people turned out to watch him circle the Eiffel Tower in his innovative airship. The crowds on the bridges over the Seine were so thick that people were shoved into the river when they scaled the parapets to get a better view. The scientists who observed the flight from Gustave Eiffel's apartment at the top of the tower were sure he would not make it. They feared that an unpredictable wind would impale him on the spire. Others were convinced that the balloon would explode. When Santos-Dumont proved them wrong, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells sent congratulatory telegrams.

By the end of 1903, at the time of Santos-Dumont's dinner with Cartier and Princess Isabel, he was a fixture in the Paris skies. He had designed a small airship, which his fans called Baladeuse ("Wanderer"), his personal runabout in which he went bar-hopping, tying the balloon to the gas-lamp posts in front of the city's glamorous night spots. Baladeuse was as easy to operate as that new invention the automobile that sputtered down Paris boulevards but it had the advantage of not startling horses or pedestrians when it was in midflight. Santos-Dumont's larger racing airships demanded more attention than Baladeuse, and he complained to Cartier that he could not time his own flights because it was dangerous for him to take his hands off the controls and fish out his pocket watch. Cartier promised he would come up with a solution, and he soon invented one of the first wrist watches for Santos-Dumont—a commercial version of which became a must-have accessory for status-conscious Parisians.

Santos-Dumont had a romantic vision of every person on Earth possessing their own Baladeuse, so that they would literally be free as a bird to travel anywhere they wanted anytime they pleased. The future of flying machines, he thought, lay in the lighter-than-air balloon not in the heavier-than-air plane, which as far as he knew had not progressed beyond the unpowered glider. He envisaged gigantic airships—not rigid zeppelins but big soft balloons with their payloads slung below—whisking travelers between Paris and New York, Berlin and Calcutta, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro.

Santos-Dumont did not believe in patents. He made the blueprints of his airships freely available to anyone who wanted them. He saw the flying machine as a chariot of peace, bringing estranged cultures in contact with each other so that they could get to know each other as people, thereby reducing the potential for hostilities. In retrospect it seems a naive vision, with the Great War only a decade away, but his optimism was not uncommon among men of science at the turn of the century, when novelties such as the electric light, the automobile, and the telephone were transforming society in fundamental ways.

That December night in 1903, Santos-Dumont and his elevated companions reflected on what a great year it had been for him. He had had none of the usual accidents, which had made him famous as the man who defied death time and again. None of his customary crashes on the jagged rooftops of Parisian hotels, no unexpected nose-dives into the Mediterranean, no sudden descents onto a stranger's land. It was a tranquil year. In Baladeuse he owned the skies of France. He was the only one who was consistently puttering around in a flying machine. As Santos-Dumont's butler decanted wine for the guests, Cartier and Princess Isabel offered a toast to their host's ingenuity. No one else was close to mastering the air—or so it seemed.

Eager for a new challenge, Santos-Dumont eventually joined the competition to build and fly the world's first airplane. For a few months he appeared to have succeeded, but after an acrimonious priority fight, Wilbur and Orville Wright, who had initially flown in secret, garnered that glory. Santos-Dumont retained the distinction of flying the first airplane in Europe, and his élan and perseverance was credited with inspiring aeronauts across the continent.

Early aeronautics in Europe had the quality of a gentlemen's club. Balloon meets on Sunday mornings replaced polo and fox hunts. Flying machines were a diversion for the rich men who owned the first automobiles—oil barons, well-heeled lawyers, and newspaper tycoons. They accepted Santos-Dumont as one of their own because he was the fine-mannered son of a coffee magnate. They supported the inventors of dirigibles and airplanes both by funding them directly and by offering lucrative prizes for aeronautical "firsts": the first to circumvent the Eiffel Tower in a powered balloon, the first to fly an airplane 50 yards, the first to cross the English Channel.

The recreational aspect of these aeronautical contests tended to belie how dangerous they were. More than 200 men, many of them with wives and children, some of them the top engineers and inventors of their day, died in accidents before Santos-Dumont succeeded. The aeronautical pioneers had none of the modern techniques for assessing the air-worthiness of a flying machine. The only way to demonstrate that it could fly was to go up in it, and, as it turned out, most of these fanciful machines either could not get off the ground, stay upright in the air, or descend safely. Santos-Dumont clearly knew the risks involved. And although he told friends that flying gave him the greatest pleasure in life, he would not have courted danger if it were not for a higher purpose—the invention of a technology that would revolutionize transportation and advance world peace.

The first half of his goal was realized in his lifetime. The flying machine of course is now the principal means of conveying people long distances. In the United States alone, there are 90,700 plane flights a day. And in Brazil 157 planes depart for Europe every week. The flight from São Paulo to Paris is eleven hours, a journey that took Santos-Dumont more than a week by steamship and train. Progress toward the second half of his goal has been decidedly mixed. On the one hand, passenger planes, along with the telephone, radio, television, and now the Internet, have turned the world into a global village. When an earthquake strikes El Salvador, food from London can be airlifted there within hours. When an Ebola outbreak is detected in the Congo, doctors from the Centers for Disease Control can be there in a day. On the other hand, military aircraft have caused millions of casualties not just at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but in the ordinary course of war. And then on the morning of September 11, 2001, the unthinkable happened, two passenger planes were diabolically converted into skyscraper-obliterating missiles. The first great invention of the twentieth century had become the nightmare of the twenty-first.

The Wright brothers had a different motivation from Santos-Dumont in developing the plane. They were not idealists. They did not dream about bringing distant peoples together. They were not thrill-seekers. They did not rhapsodize about the joys of flying or preach a kind of aerial spirituality. They were not playful men and certainly did not host dinners at high tables. They were intent on building flying machines for financial gain, and when the US government initially refused to fund them, they had no moral compunctions about approaching foreign militaries.

In the aftermath of the Great War, when it was evident that the plane could be used as a weapon of mass destruction, Santos-Dumont was the first aeronaut to press for the demilitarization of aircraft. His was a lonely voice, calling on heads of state to decommision their bombers. Orville Wright did not join his call (and Wilbur by then was dead).

Santos-Dumont was perhaps the most revered man in Paris in the first years of the twentieth century. His dapper countenance stared out from cigar boxes, matchbooks, and dinner plates. Fashion designers did a brisk business with replicas of his trademark Panama hat and the stiff high shirt collars that he favored. Toy makers could not turn out enough models of his balloons. Even French bakers honored him, offering cigar-shaped pastries decorated in the yellow and green colors of the Brazilian flag.

He was famous on both sides of the English Channel—indeed, on both sides of the Atlantic. "When the names of those who have occupied outstanding positions in the world have been forgotten," the London Times declared in 1901, "there will be a name which will remain in our memory, that of Santos-Dumont."

The irony in the Times's statement of course is that today he is barely remembered outside Brazil, where he is still a hero of mythic proportion. A town, a major airport, and dozens of streets are named for him. The mere mention of his name brings a smile to most Brazilians, as they picture the bygone era when their daring countryman proudly ruled the skies in a tiny balloon. As the rest of the world has largely forgotten Santos-Dumont, Brazilians themselves, in their romanticizing of the man in poems, songs, statues, busts, paintings, biographies, and memorial celebrations, have neglected his darker side. He was a tortured genius, a free spirit who strove to escape the confines of gravity, the peer pressure of his aeronautical confreres, the isolation of his rural upbringing, the small-mindedness of science's ruling elders, the conformity of married life, the stereotypes of gender, and even the fate of his own cherished invention.

Many boys have dreamed of owning a personal flying machine, a kind of winged car that could take off and land anywhere, without the need for a runway. No one in the twenty-first century has realized that dream. A few elite corporate moguls have come close: they commute to work by helicopter, flying between backyard landing pads and office roofs. But even these globe-trotting captains of industry cannot fly to their favorite restaurant, the theater, or the store. Only one man in history has enjoyed that freedom. His name was Alberto Santos-Dumont, and his aerial steed was an engine-driven balloon.