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Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight    by Paul Hoffman order for
Wings of Madness
by Paul Hoffman
Order:  USA  Can
Hyperion, 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I'd never heard of Brazilian aeronautical pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont before reading this book. Have you? We've all heard of the Wright brothers and their success, but the period of experimentation that preceded Kitty Hawk in 1903 is relatively unknown. In fact my only awareness of it came from watching Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and, despite being factual, Wings of Madness has a similar, somewhat farcical flavor.

Santos-Dumont came from a wealthy family. He was a small man, incredibly brave (or foolhardy, depending on your point of view), and obsessed with flight. He gave aerial dinner parties in 1900s Paris, city of 'technophiles', in which illustrious guests such as the Rothschilds, Empress Eug9nie and jeweler Louis Cartier, dined at a height, in the 1890s. He was an idealist, with 'a romantic vision of every person on earth ... free as birds to travel anywhere they wanted anytime they pleased' and he saw a future in lighter-than-air balloons rather than in planes.

This was an era full of possibility when science was innocent and untainted with the fears of misuse we have now, and scientists were brave explorers of the unknown. The automobile was new (Santos-Dumont was the first to drive one in South America) as was the bicycle, wristwatch, and theatrophone (a special pay phone for listening to live opera etc.). In this context, Santos-Dumont invented, tinkered with, and piloted himself, a succession of balloons, first unpowered and then with engines. He had many narrow escapes, often visible from the ground. And the general practicality of balloon navigation was often challenged. But this pioneer persisted through over twenty prototypes.

Santos-Dumont, and others, were very much against use of the technology for destruction. There are early accounts of attempts to use balloons in warfare, such as an absurd assault on Venice by air in 1849, but of course aerial assault was a big factor in World War I. This devastated 'technological utopians' like Santos-Dumont. He took personal responsibility for fatalities from air attacks, and subsequently seems to have fallen into madness.

Although there is much material in here to pique the interest, what really got to me was the fact that this shy, eccentric character (who, by the way, enjoyed embroidery and knitting in his spare time) at one point flitted around Paris in his personal flying machine #9. That must have been something to see. Wings of Madness is a marvellous story, well told, of both a man and an era that should not be forgotten.

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