A forgotten hero with a passion for the sky
Alberto Santos-Dumont took to the air in a hot-air balloon, but was overtaken by the Wright brothers
We have an unfortunate tendency when recording history to minimize those people who finished 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 his native Brazil, where he is celebrated as nothing short of a national hero, Alberto Santos-Dumont has been all but forgotten. It's an ignominious fate for a man who was once one of the most famous people on the planet.
In contrast to the secretive Wrights, the eccentric Santos-Dumont was the very personification of the people that we imagine threw themselves into the air to conquer the skies. Obsessed by the idea of flight at an early age and born into wealth, Santos-Dumont indulged in his pursuit with an unequaled passion. Though Paul Hoffman's biography, "Wings of Madness," 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 that he believed lighter-than-air flight would remain state-of-the-art aviation.
Though we think of ballooning as a serene sport, it was actually quite dangerous. "The aeronautical pioneers had none of the modern techniques for assessing the airworthiness of a flying machine," Hoffman points out. "The only way to demonstrate that it could fly was to go up in it." 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 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 to 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 establish 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. Santos- Dumont eventually fell into 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 Gruyère. 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 became outdated as soon as the Wright brothers flew their airplane, and he 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 inspired others to believe in the future of flight. Hoffman delivers a compelling and touching account of a man in love with the idea that we would one day regularly enjoy the freedom of flight. It's a story that deserves to be better known.
• Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.