The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Summary: McCullough traces the Wright brothers successful efforts to develop the first powered aircraft to successfully, fly from their home town bicycle shop in Dayton, to their trials at Kitty Hawk, to their global success. The book also highlights the importance of their sister Katherine throughout their efforts.
“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” –Wilbur Wright
The story is a famous one and yet masterfully told by biographer and historian David McCullough, who once again has turned archival work into a vivid narrative of the beginnings of powered flight. He traces the Wright brothers from their childhood, including Wilbur’s facial injuries, which led to a period of voracious reading, and Orville’s nearly fatal brush with typhoid fever to the beginnings of their bicycle shop, Wilbur’s letter to the Smithsonian to collect information about attempts at flight, to their tests at Kitty Hawk, first of gliders to learn wing design and lateral stabilizers, to their first powered plane flights. What is remarkable is that the brothers spent less than $1000, and all of it their own money, to accomplish this. By contrast, Samuel Langley spent $70,000, much of it government money, in an attempt that ended in the Potomac River.
The second half of the book details their attempts to convince governments of the success of their efforts, while continuing to refine their machines. One of the most interesting aspects of this narrative were the efforts of Katherine, their Oberlin-educated school teacher sister, on their behalf. From managing the bicycle shop with its fractious but gifted mechanic Charles Taylor to nursing Orville after a crash during a demonstration flight at Fort Myers to caring for an aging father and consulting on the business, Katherine played a key role in the success of the Wrights.
There was what seemed a bittersweet end to all this, as Wilbur dies of typhoid shortly after returning from Europe in 1912, exhausted from training flyers and fighting patent suits. Orville manages better, eventually selling the company and living with Katherine and the Bishop in a mansion in the Dayton suburb of Oakwood. But he witnessed the plane he helped invent used as a new weapon of devastation, as well as in commercial flight.
Several things seemed to contribute to the Wright’s success beyond their parentage and being born in Ohio.
1. They developed skills in making and improving machines in printing and cycling business, learning how to machine parts and work with materials.
2. They knew how to work hard, and yet they rigorously observed the sabbath. At Kitty Hawk, they first built (and re-built after storms) their own hanger, then assembled the plane, sewing the wing fabric, and then conducted the tests. Then they returned to Dayton to manufacture their next season’s supply of bicycles in their own machine shop.
3. They were rigorous experimentalists. In contrast to others like Octave Chanute, they did not simply theorize about flight. They rigorously tested designs, first as kites, then in a homemade wind tunnel, and finally through lots of time in the air learning about the issues of keeping equilibrium in the air and developing proper control mechanisms to do that. Wilbur Wright once said, “No bird soars in a calm.”
4. They had an integrity that didn’t make claims that couldn’t be substantiated by demonstrations. They worked out of the limelight, and with their own funds, and avoided publicity until they had both designed a plane that anyone could be trained to fly, and that flew reliably. At times this meant facing the skepticism of even hometown folks and the U.S government as to what they actually had accomplished.
What is fascinating is that they accomplished all of this with only a high school education, and mostly on the basis of their own resources. McCullough, who has written biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, and narratives of the Johnstown Flood, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, has once again given us a vivid portrait both of these two brothers, and their extraordinary sister, from Dayton, and a monumental human accomplishment. This is a great summer read!