Before the Wright Brothers?


By Nancy Winters

Ecco Press, 160 pp., $23

Albertos Santos-Dumont, the great "master of the balloon" and "conqueror of the air," led a fascinating, yet little-heard-of life. Nancy Winters tells the triumphant and tragic story of the man and his flying machines in "Man Flies."

A Brazilian coffee baron's son, Santos grew up in a palatial home, surrounded by a world of books. He was intrigued with Jules Verne and the possibility of man's flight. He was determined to persuade family and playmates that man had the means to reach the sky. "Man flies!" he would cry to his disbelieving friends.

When adulthood freed him to follow his passion, he moved to Paris and studied science and the history of airships.

Santos stunned both the nobility and the artisans with his astonishing experiments. His aeronautical feats brought him fame and fortune, and he became known throughout the world as the first man to fly. Among his creations were a spherical free balloon in 1898 and a pioneering light plane in 1907.

Despite his fame, however, the story has a sober ending. Although the world was good to him, posterity was not. The Wright brothers, who claimed to have flown the first heavier-than-air flight four years before him in 1903, eclipsed his achievements. His most lasting legacy became the Santos wristwatch that Cartier named after him.

Toward the end of his life, Santos-Dumont began to feel responsible for every plane that crashed and every flight used as a means of war. In a cloud of guilt and sickness, he took his own life in 1932.

Despite its somber conclusion, this story is a celebration of a remarkable man. "He encouraged others to aim for the stars," Winters notes.

Her book is gracefully told and stylishly published in a small Art Deco edition. Winters scatters the tale with interesting anecdotes and wonderful photos. With an appeal across the board, this is a flying success.

* Caitlin Shannon is a Monitor intern.

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