In The Wright Brothers, author David McCullough brings to life Wilbur and Orville’s race to be the first to conquer the skies.
By the time the brothers arrived on the scene, man had been trying to fly for centuries, with no real success beyond hot air balloons. Many people didn’t think flight was possible and ridiculed those who attempted it. Despite this, the Wright brothers were convinced they could crack the code. Fortunately, they were uniquely qualified to do it, bringing strong work ethics, steady perseverance and natural engineering talent to the effort. These bicycle shop owners from Dayton would prevail where so many had failed.
The brothers had an interesting background. They had had two other brothers and a sister, Katharine. Katharine was the only sibling to attend college and the only one who took an active interest in Wilbur and Orville’s flying efforts. Their father was a widowed bishop who spent a lot of his time on the road preaching. He was progressive for his time, actively supporting rights for women and minorities. He instilled in his children a penchant for hard work as well as a strong belief in well rounded learning. We get to know the bishop and Katharine pretty well through their correspondence with Wilbur and Orville. The four of them were very close.
We also get to learn about the process the brothers used to figure out the design of their machines. They were true students of aeronautics, learning from the failed attempts of their predecessors. And they studied birds. Birds know how to use wind to help them fly so the brothers designed a machine that used some similar principles and looked for a really windy place to test it. That’s how they ended up in Kitty Hawk. As an added bonus, all the sand would help to cushion rough landings.
The Kitty Hawk experiences were interesting, but I found the brothers’ efforts to commercialize their invention equally fascinating. The US government was initially not interested (actually, it seems that the correspondence about their flying machine got lost in a sea of bureaucracy). Undeterred, Wilbur headed off to France with one of the planes and soon wowed most of Europe. From then on, progress in developing other types of aircraft developed rapidly, which brought on another phenomenon of commercializing new inventions – patent lawsuits. Bummer. The Wright brothers fought hard to maintain their legacy of being first in flight.
Many of the historical facts in this book were pulled from letters and journals. The Wrights wrote a ton of letters to each other and in so doing created a record of a very important historical event. I sometimes wonder how historians will piece together what happened in our time, when most correspondence is electronic and password protected. And so many pictures are only stored on people’s phones or hard drives. It seems like a lot of information is at risk of never getting passed on. I’m sure there are some smart people who will figure that out. In the meantime, I still keep old-fashioned photo albums!
Something else I was reminded of is that fake news is not a recent phenomenon. Some of the reporters at the time told some real whoppers about the Wright brothers.
Overall, a very fine read. If you like history, you’ll probably enjoy The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.
Have you read The Wright Brothers? Let me know what you thought.