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The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont

If I didn't know that The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont, wonderfully written by Victoria Griffith with gorgeous pictures by Eva Montanari, was a work of non-fiction, I would have thought I was reading a fascinating story about two very creative, inventive friends set in turn of the century Paris. That would be a great book. Even better than that? Finding out that these two friends are real people who did some truly amazing things in their time.


I had no idea who Alberto Santos-Dumont was when I opened  The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont. Griffith's Author's Note at the end of the book tells a terrific story of how she came to know of Alberto Santos-Dumont. Griffith's writes, 

I asked my daughter Sophia,"What did you learn in school today?" "We learned how the Wright Brothers invented the airplane," she answered. It was an unremarkable response to an unremarkable question. So I was unprepared for my Brazilian husband's reaction. "That's ridiculous!" he exclaimed, horrified. "Everyone knows that Alberto Santos-Dumont invented the airplane." I was intrigued.

I am glad she was. I have to confess, airplanes and humans in flight aren't that interesting to me (although I know they are high interest for most little kids, boys especially.) However, early twentieth century Paris, Louis Cartier and the invention of the wristwatch are very interesting to me!
Griffiths begins her book, "Alberto Santos-Dumont loved floating over Paris in his own personal flying machine. It had helped make him one of the most famous men in the city, if not the world! Everyone, he thought, should have this much fun running a small, simple errand." And, as The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont shows us, Santos-Dumont did know how to have fun, how to share it and how to be a gentleman at the same time.
Santos-Dumont also liked to set records with his flying machines but, as he tells his friend Louis Cartier when he arrives late for a coffee date, "as you know, I can't check my pocket watch up in the air." To solve this problem, Cartier invents the wristwatch for his adventurous friend. While the invention of the airplane is a tremendous, momentous event, the invention of something so humble yet so widely used and valued is equally fascinating. To know that Cartier invented the watch not for profit, but to make his friend's pursuits a little easier, is amazing to me, just as amazing as it is to think that these two great men were friends. I think that this connection, between the seemingly mundane wristwatch and enormous feat of taking to the air is the  is one that will resonate and enthrall young (and old) readers of this book.

Griffiths goes on to tell the story of Santos-Dumont's attempt at flying his first invention in 1906. When he arrived at the field, which was filled with spectators, with his plane a competitor, Louis Blériot (who would later become the first man to cross the English Channel in a plane), was waiting there with is aircraft, waiting to steal credit for flying the first airplane out from under Santos-Dumont. Ever the gentleman, Santos-Dumont suggests that his competitor take to the air first. It took Blériot three tries to get his craft into the air. However, on the third try, his plane fell to pieces. Griffith writes, "Alberto watched calmly, sipping a cup of coffee." Not only does Alberto succeed in getting his plane into the air, he stays airborne for twenty-one seconds and goes faster than his dirigible ever did. The next morning, Alberto and his airplane would be on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Somehow, in our own Americentric way, we look to the Wright Brothers as the inventors of the airplane despite the fact that their first flight in 1903 was with an airplane that needed assistance to get off the ground, where Santos-Dumont's did not.

I love the final piece of information that Griffiths shares in her Author's Note about Santos-Dumont, "Alberto was an idealist. He never sought patents for his inventions and gave away most of the money he won from competitios. He thought his 'flying machines' would bring about permanent world peace." Santos-Dumont invented the Demoiselle, or Dragonfly, the first aircraft to be mass-produced. However, he was also "distraught over the use of his beloved flying machines for warfare and bewildered by his abrupt fall from favor." Griffith's picture book length look into the brighter days of Santos-Dumont's life is valuable on so many levels - as an interesting, out of the ordinary subject for one of those many  biography book reports our kids seem to be doing, as a fascinating story, and as a look into the lives of people who, as is so often the case in any instance of innovation, were working towards the same goal at the same time as several other great minds.

Santos-Dumont Demoiselle


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