Wings of Madness

This review appeared in the Sunday Times on 27 July 2003

Paul Hoffman, Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight, Fourth Estate, £18.99, pp. 369

Alberto Santos-Dumont was propelled through life by two equally pressing ambitions: to fly and to be famous, and Paul Hoffman’s Wings of Madness tells the exhilarating story of his determined efforts to transform himself into the Icarus of the machine age. Like Icarus, Santos-Dumont was a complex, vain and ultimately tragic figure, an eccentric fine-tuner rather than an actual inventor, in spite of the book’s misleading subtitle, yet for the first few years of the twentieth century this long-forgotten showman was one of the best-known and best-loved celebrities in the world.

Alberto Santos-Dumont was born in Brazil in 1873, and spent his early years on his father’s coffee plantation, where he became fascinated by the operations of the complex machinery through which high-quality coffee beans were processed for export. By the age of eighteen he had moved to Paris and immersed himself in the world of European engineering, the latest icon of which, the Eiffel Tower, had just been installed as the centrepiece of the Paris Exposition of 1889. Twice the height of any other man-made structure in the world, the ten-thousand-ton giant dominated the Paris skyline and represented, for the awe-struck Santos-Dumont, “everything that is powerful and progressive” in modernity. The tower seemed to exercise an almost magnetic attraction on the ambitious young engineer, and as soon as he had started to fly his first balloons, he was to be seen circling dangerously close to its wrought-iron curves, risking his life to view the world’s greatest landmark from the air.

His were no ordinary balloons, however, but custom-built motorised airships. A technological utopian, Santos-Dumont had quickly convinced himself that the automobile, a new invention which he owned and loved, would nevertheless give way to the personal flying machine, and that the time would soon come when an aircraft rather than a car would be parked outside every home. He spent his life promoting this idea, and much of Paul Hoffman’s captivating book is devoted to Santos-Dumont’s death-defying efforts to create ever smaller and more reliable personal aerial cars. In fact Santos-Dumont remains the only person in history ever to have owned an aerial runaround, a three horsepower hydrogen balloon named Baladeuse (“Wanderer”), in which he would fly around Paris, dropping in at his favourite restaurants, handing the reins of his aircraft to the doorman on the way in, or leaving it tethered to a nearby lamppost like a propeller-driven horse. A natural showman, Santos-Dumont always dressed immaculately, and somehow contrived — on the occasions when he managed not to crash — to step unruffled from his aircraft with a glass of chilled champagne in his hand. The public and the press adored him, following every detail of his eccentricities in the air, and by the beginning of the new century Alberto Santos-Dumont (“Petite Santos”, as the papers began to call him) had achieved the second of his ambitions: to be famous.
Fame is itself a mode of ascent, with its own peculiarly hazardous machinery, to which Santos-Dumont diligently applied himself in an effort to understand how it worked. He subscribed, for example, to three clippings services which scoured the world’s newspapers for any mention of his name, and he cooperated with the press at every turn. “Frankly”, he confessed, “I love glory. I desire fame”, and his celebrity was of that recognisably modern sort, in which his sense of self, like one of his balloons, was deflated as soon as it was removed from public view.

As the twentieth century unfolded, however, Santos-Dumont began to realise that his lighter-than-air dirigibles were becoming obsolete. Eighteenth-century balloons fitted with nineteenth-century engines no longer looked, even to him, like the vehicles of the future. But he had been uncharacteristically slow in accepting the possibility of heavier-than-air flight, and by the time he came around to trying it out for himself there were others way ahead of him in the game. He was to react particularly badly to the success of his American rivals, and publicly disputed the Wright brothers’ claims to have flown the world’s first heavier-than-air machine. In 1906 his own heavier-than-air craft, nicknamed Bird of Prey, flew the first successful aeroplane flight in Europe, but it had come three years too late: the Wright brothers had already changed the world at Kitty Hawk, and it would be their names rather than his that history would remember.

In common with many technological pioneers, Santos-Dumont believed that machines had the power to bring peace to a troubled world, but the rise of mechanised killing during the First World War, not least from multiple air-raids, put an end to that utopian idea for good. Santos-Dumont, who was in Brazil for most of the war, was heart-broken by the military use of planes and airships, “my babies” as he described them, and he began to reproach himself for his part in their development. After the war he lobbied for the demilitarisation of all flying machines, but his failure to be heard on the matter depressed him even further. He withdrew from aviation and spent his last few years in a series of sanatoriums in Switzerland and France. In 1932 he returned to Brazil, where a revolutionary civil war had broken out. After listening one morning to the sounds of a nearby air-raid, he took the lift to his hotel room and hanged himself from a hook on the door. When his countrymen heard the news, they called a three-day truce in the war, with the combatants from both sides lining up for miles to file past his open casket. When the three days were up, however, they returned to the slaughter that had driven their national hero to such despair. In the end, the Madness of Hoffman’s title refers not to Alberto Santos-Dumont, but to the world that he left behind.

Richard Hamblyn

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