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Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight Paperback – June 16, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This thoroughly entertaining history of one of the currently overlooked heroes from early-20th-century aviation equals that of Hoffman's earlier volume, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. Almost unknown today except in his native Brazil (where he is a revered figure), Alberto Santos-Dumont was known throughout the world as "a maverick among contemporary aeronauts." Obsessed with the idea of flight from an early age, Santos-Dumont (1873-1932) was an eccentric genius whose inherited wealth allowed him to live in luxury in fin-de-siecle Paris, at first working on ballooning. After designing small, cigar-shaped, engine-powered vehicles, which he used for everything from traveling around Paris to circling the Eiffel Tower, he soon became one of the best-known men in the city. Later he built "the world's first sports plane." Hoffman expertly recaptures from the historical dustbin the many facets of this unique character who befriended the Rothschilds and Cartiers, ran in the same crowd as Marcel Proust and devoted his life to a singular passion unmatched even by the obsessive Wright Brothers during the early days of aviation, "a time when the vast majority of Europeans and Americans had not yet traveled along the ground in an automobile."
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

The Wright brothers launched the age of manned aviation at Kitty Hawk in 1903. However, they did so in near secrecy, primarily because they wished to protect their patent rights. Three years later, a Brazilian investor and aviator living in Paris made a more publicly viewed flight and was acclaimed, temporarily, as the father of manned flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. Hoffman writes an account of an adventurous epoch and an adventurous, attractive, but strangely melancholy man. While the Wright brothers shunned publicity, Santos-Dumont craved it. He was lively, flamboyant, and a social butterfly, who sometimes seemed to view aviation as a diverting lark. He seemed entirely at home in the freewheeling, stimulating milieu of pre-war Paris. Yet, beneath his bon vivant exterior, Santos-Dumont was driven with a creative passion and was tortured by the militarization of aircraft. Hoffman is a gifted writer whose elegant prose captures a fascinating era and a compelling personality who was never fully at ease with that era or with himself. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion (June 16, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786885718
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786885718
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #962,951 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By John Thorpe on August 4, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I picked up this book because Simon Winchester, in the New York Times, called Wings of Madness "brilliant" and an "unforgettably good book." Fortunately this atmospheric book (it evokes Paris at the end of the 19th century) lived up to its billing. This is an incredible story that deserves to be widely known. The Brazilian-born aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont was a tremendous aerial showman and a great humanitarian. He flew the first working dirigible around the tip of the Eiffel Tower in 1901 in front of biggest gathering of human beings--scientists, royalty, peasants to whom he promised money if he was successful--that had ever come together before. He went on to shrink the size of his airship so that he became the only person in history to have an aerial car. He tied it to the lampost in front of his Parisian apartment and flew every night to fancy restaurants like Maxim's and handed a rope from the balloon to the doormen to hold. He was so famous that Parisians imitated his dress--his Panama hat and the peculiar upturned shirt collars he wore to make himself seem taller. He believed that flying machines would bring about world peace and was emotionally destroyed when he saw his beloved inventions commandeered to kill people in World War I. This moving story ends with his mysterious death in circumstances that I don't want to give away.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
"Wings of Madness" is a great book, entertaining and informative. But it is much less a biography of Santos-Dumont than an account of the development of his flying machines. While the author provides detailed descriptions of Santos-Dumont's attempts to conquer the air, a fair amount of the history of manned flight, and even digresses about the development and the creators of military weapons (an interesting analysis by the way), we learn little about this extraordinary man and his activities outside the aviation realm. The years before his arrival in Paris and those after he built his last airplane are condensed in only two chapters.
The tale of Santos-Dumont's endeavors in Paris in the early 20th century is thrilling and admirably recounted by Paul Hoffman, but my thirst for learning more about Santos-Dumont's life was far from quenched.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Debra Hamel VINE VOICE on August 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian who emigrated to Paris at the age of 19, was perhaps the most celebrated man in France in the early 20th century. An effete eccentric with a genius for mechanical invention, Santos designed and regularly flew about Paris a series of airships. Most of these were powered, lighter-than-air vessels--hydrogen balloons to which he had attached a motor. But later in his career Santos also experimented with heavier-than-air flying machines--though not, to his great disappointment, before the Wright brothers had themselves achieved sustained flight. Among the aviator's airships was the world's first, and only, personal flying machine. Santos hopped around Paris in his "Baladeuse," or "Wanderer," alighting to order an aperitif at some sidewalk café, or dropping anchor at a club where, upon disembarking, he would hand the reins of his machine to a valet.

Paul Hoffman's seamless account of Santos-Dumont's life and career follows the aviator from his childhood on his father's coffee plantation to his sad death in 1932. Always somewhat tormented--Santos craved the adoration his pioneering exploits won for him--he ended his days apparently guilt-ridden over the lethal use to which airplanes--which were to his mind his own invention--were being put.

Hoffman's well-written book is fascinating for its invocation of a lost world. The author is to be applauded, too, for bringing the flamboyant, troubled Santos-Dumont once again to the attention of the public.

Reviewed by Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Eric Hobart VINE VOICE on July 25, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Paul Hoffman has given us a biography of a man who seems to be relatively unknown here in the United States, although he is very well known in his native Brazil - Alberto Santos-Dumont.
I purchased this book because I had been exposed to Santos-Dumont while listening to James Tobin's To Conquer the Air book, and I wanted to understand more about this uncommon man.
Santos-Dumont was an innovator, and experimented primarily with lighter-than-air flying craft (such as attaching a motor to a hydrogen filled balloon). He eventually moved into heavier than air flying craft by inventing airplanes in the same genre as the Wright Brothers.
I found the book to be fast-paced and well-written. However, I had two minor concerns with the book - first, there was precious little introduction to some people that were important in the development of powered flight (i.e. Octave Chanute or Otto Lilienthal), despite the fact that they were mentioned numerous times during the book. The second concern I had was that one chapter seemed to have nothing more than a tangential connection to Santos-Dumont - a chapter devoted primarily to the use of aircraft in World War I.
Despite these two minor shortcomings, I highly recommend the book to all, since it truly allows us to explore a man that many of us know virtually nothing about, and his important work leading to powered flight.
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