The Wright brothers

by David G. McCullough

Hardcover, 2015




New York : Simon & Schuster, [2015]


On a winter day in 1903, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two unknown brothers from Ohio changed history. But it would take the world some time to believe what had happened: the age of flight had begun, with the first heavier-than-air, powered machine carrying a pilot. Who were these men and how was it that they achieved what they did? Far more than a couple of unschooled Dayton bicycle mechanics who happened to hit on success, they were men of exceptional courage and determination, and of far-ranging intellectual interests and ceaseless curiosity, much of which they attributed to their upbringing. The house they lived in had no electricity or indoor plumbing, but there were books aplenty, supplied mainly by their preacher father, and they never stopped reading. When they worked together, no problem seemed to be insurmountable. Wilbur was unquestionably a genius. Orville had such mechanical ingenuity as few had ever seen. That they had no more than a public high school education, little money and no contacts in high places, never stopped them in their mission to take to the air. Nothing did, not even the self-evident reality that every time they took off in one of their contrivances, they risked being killed. Historian David McCullough draws on the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including private diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence to tell the human side of the Wright Brothers' story, including the little-known contributions of their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them.… (more)

Media reviews

David McCullough is interested in only one thing, namely how it was possible that two autodidacts from Ohio managed to satisfy a longing that the species had harbored for centuries. “The Wright Brothers” is merely this: a story, well told, about what might be the most astonishing feat mankind has ever accomplished. As the comic Louis C.K. has said, reprovingly, to those who complain about the inconveniences and insults of modern air travel: “You’re sitting. In a chair. In the SKY!!” Which is saying a lot. On its own terms, “The Wright Brothers” soars.
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This concise, exciting and fact-packed book sees the easy segue between bicycling and aerial locomotion, which at that point was mostly a topic for bird fanciers and dreamers.

User reviews

LibraryThing member weird_O
[The Wright Brothers] by [[David McCullough]] is just another entertaining and informative book from this wonderful historian. He presents the chronology, the background, the facts with all the essential details and nuances. He animates the personalities. I didn't need an audio version; as I read, I could hear McCulluogh's distinctive voice and cadence. It is all good.

The story is familiar to most of us. At the beginning of the twentieth century, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright from Dayton, Ohio, take on the challenge of manned flight. With insight and focus and method that turns out to be typical of them, they first design and build a glider. The intention is to create a controllable craft that will carry a man. They test it on the wind-swept sand dunes of North Carolina's then-remote Outer Banks. Returning with it to Dayton, they revise their design, rebuild the glider, and again test it in North Carolina. Adding power is the next phase. When they can't buy an engine that meets their criteria, they build their own. They discover that were is no data to guide propellor design, so they develop their own. Testing the "Flyer" back in North Carolina on December 17, 1903, Orville pilots it on an historic 12-second flight that covers all of 120 feet. Not far, not long duration, but it's the very first flight of a piloted, powered, heavier-than-air craft. Later that morning, Wilbur takes the controls for a 175-foot flight, then Orville flies 200 feet. Finally, Wilbur takes another turn and flies 852 feet in 59 seconds. While the brothers discuss additional flights, a gust of wind tumbles the Flyer across the sand. The craft badly damaged, the tests in North Carolina abruptly conclude, never to be resumed.

But the Wrights now are satisfied they can repeat their initial flights and know just how much work still is needed. They return to Dayton and in 1904 resume their tests in a pasture outside of town. Each brother masters turning, and soon they are flying laps, extending the duration of flights, increasing the altitude they can achieve. They file a patent application (that takes three years to be granted).

Their real triumph doesn't come until 1908, when public trials are conducted in France and the United States. Thousands witness Wilbur's countless demonstration flights in France. Government and military officials from throughout Europe come to observe and to clamor for rides. Orville demonstrates the craft for American officials and the public at Ft. Myers, Virginia. The response is overwhelmingly positive.

This is a David McCullough book, so of course we get more than a bland, chronological recitation. We find out just how unique, how remarkable Wilbur and Orville were. They were not "tinkerers" who got lucky. Despite a lack of formal education beyond high school, the brothers were thoughtful and analytic, methodical and focused. A problem that resisted solution tended to make them obsessive. Propeller design is a good example. McCullough writes:

Much to their surprise, they could find no existing data on air propellers. They had assumed they could go by whatever rule-of-thumb marine engineers used for propellers on boats, and accordingly drew on the resources of the Dayton library only to find that after a hundred years in use the exact action of a screw propeller was still obscure. Once more they were left no choice but to solve the problem themselves…They began to see the propeller as an airplane wing traveling in a spiral course and that if they could calculate the effect of a wing traveling a straight course, why could they not calculate the effect of one traveling in a spiral course?

As it turned out, it was more complicated than that, as Orville explained in an article published in Flying in 1913:

But on further consideration, it is hard to find even a point from which to make a start; for nothing about a propeller, or the medium in which it acts, stands still for a moment. The thrust depends upon the speed and the angle at which the blade strikes the air; the angle at which the blade strikes the air depends on the speed at which the propeller is turning, the speed the machine is traveling forward, and the speed at which the air is slipping backward; the slip of the air backward depends on the thrust exerted by the propeller, and the amount of air acted upon. When any one of these change, it changes all the rest, as they are all interdependent on one another.

The Wright Brothers is a slight book for McCullough—262 pages of text. But he packs a lot into those pages. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member bragan
A thorough, well-researched biography of Wilbur and Orville Wright and their successful design, development, and flight of the world's first airplane.

As biographies go, it's not, I suppose, the world's most exciting. There are no juicy scandals in the brothers' backgrounds, and, with the possible exception of one particularly bad crash in which a passenger was killed, no thrilling twists and turns in the story of their lives. This is just the story of two smart, decent, industrious guys who developed an interest in something, worked very, very, very hard at it, succeeded, and were then properly appreciated for their accomplishments. But there's something pleasant in that, anyway, and the details are interesting. I especially appreciated McCullough's ability to talk about the science and engineering of the Wrights' airplanes without being either too vague or too technical.

What I found really fascinating about this bit of history, though, is something that McCullough only very briefly alludes to in the epilogue, and that's how astonishingly quickly this invention changed the world, including the fact that a little more than a decade after the brothers' first flight, planes were already being used in war. The entire time I was reading this, I kept thinking about a fact I once saw pointed out somewhere and have never forgotten since: only 66 years elapsed between that first flight at Kitty Hawk and Apollo 11's landing on the moon. Sixty-six years. A short enough time that there were surely plenty of people who experienced both in their adult lives. And for me, that historical perspective casts a real sense of awe over this whole account.
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LibraryThing member cameling
If Dayton, Ohio produced nothing else, she produced 2 brothers determined, humble and courageous enough to give the world our start in aviation. It's a story of a quiet and religious family, with a patriarch who encouraged his children to pursue their dreams, a family that fully supported each other and a family who remained till the end of their days, unchanged by the resulting furor.

McCullough's narrative non-fiction brings us into the lives and thoughts (where documented) of Orville and Wilbur Wright, brothers who could not have been closer if they had been born Siamese twins. From their beginnings owning a bicycle shop, they planned, tinkered and built gliders at first before graduating to motorized flyers. Everything they did revolved around meticulous planning, conscientious testings and deliberation. Their decision to use Kitty Hawk as the site for their initial testings brought them into a remote community who called the brothers, "2 of the workingest men" they'd ever seen.

Their attempts at launching a man controlled glider was not without multiple mishaps but nothing dampened their enthusiasm or their determination. It was the Europeans who first realized the potential of the Wright brothers' invention and feted them as they would have royalty. Still, patriotism dictated that the brothers offer their Flyer to the American government first and only when they were turned down did they then consent to contract with the French. It didn't take too long before the Americans realized their mistake.

From launching Flyer 1 to a motorized propeller plane, the Wright brothers continued to seek ways to improve aviation technology, to fly higher and to fly faster. Wilbur's flight around the Statue of Liberty prompted one individual to remark that there was a new seagull in the air.

I found the last paragraph in the book to be very touching, that when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, as a tribute to the Wright brothers, he brought with him, "a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 Flyer".
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LibraryThing member riofriotex
McCullough is OK as a reader - sometimes his speech is a bit garbled (slurs or mumbles). Better though to read the print book, which includes lots of black-and-white photos and other images, as well as 33 pages of source notes, a six-page bibliography, a page of illustration credits, and a 10-page index at the end.
LibraryThing member Karlstar
I thought this was a great telling of the Wright Brothers development of the first heavier than air flying machine and their subsequent efforts to teach it to others in the US and Europe. They didn't hide their accomplishment or try to monopolize it, unfortunately going too far and not profiting as much as they could have. In some ways, while it is a great triumph of engineering, it is a bit of a sad story. Very well written though.… (more)
LibraryThing member hcubic
What can you and your students learn from David McCullough’s best-selling history of the first men to aviate? I think most readers will be as surprised as was I, that one of the reasons for their success, in contrast to their many predecessors and competitors, was that they spent hundreds of hours observing and recording exactly how birds fly. One of the first things they did was a “literature search”, obtaining every scientific paper that would be useful to the enterprise. Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution in 1899, “I wish to avail myself of all that is already known”, and was answered with a generous collection of books and pamphlets from the Smithsonian itself, and from foreign sources. Another was their ability to work creatively with their hands, building and modifying wood, wire, cloth and thread, and the primitive engines of the time - testing and modifying over and over. They did their own photography, developing glass plate photographs taken at Kitty Hawk in their own darkroom in a shed behind the bicycle shop when they got home for winter. Large amounts of new science had to be invented, as well. These self-trained bicycle mechanics proved that the aerodynamic tables that had been prepared by the supposed experts in the field – Langley, Chanute, and Lilienthal – were not only untrustworthy in their details, but so blatantly wrong as to be worthless. That led them to design and construct their own wind tunnel in Akron, where they experimented with wing shapes and lift/drag factors for every component. They discovered that there was no existing literature on the performance of propellers, requiring them to make their own extensive measurements. What should be the size and pitch of the blades, and how fast should they turn? No systematic study had been done before the Wrights.
McCullough is an excellent storyteller. While he did not intentionally focus on the scientific and technological triumph of the first aviators, the history he portrays revolves around an extraordinary scientific story.
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LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
One of the most amazing things about the Wright Brothers was that, though not twins, they seemed to share their genius equally. As David McCullough tells their story in his 2015 book “The Wright Brothers,” they were dependent upon each other, yet virtually interchangeable in researching the science of flight (most of what others had written on the subject proved useless to them), building the first self-powered airplane and then actually flying it. Each could do what the other did just as well, and although they had their arguments, they most often were of the same mind and never displayed a hint of jealously about the other, even when Orville had to stay behind to recover from injuries in a crash while Wilbur won wide international acclaim during a long visit to France.

Genius is the correct word. There was no luck involved, no dependence upon the work of others as some claimed at the time. While those others were building planes that couldn't fly, sometimes killing themselves in the process, the Wright Brothers carefully researched how flight might be possible. How did birds fly? How did kites work? How did gliders work? How might a heavier-than-air craft be powered? How might it be made to turn and then land safely? Using gliders and a wind tunnel, then finding a place, Kitty Hawk, where the winds were favorable and the sand insured a safe landing, the brothers did the research before they put their lives on the line.

While other would-be aviators invited crowds to observe their disastrous flights, the Wrights worked with few witnesses. Even when they were successful and would have appreciated a little press attention, newspaper editors scoffed and ignored them. Some were insisting human flight was impossible even after the Wright Brothers proved otherwise. Not until Wilbur took their plane to Europe and wowed nobility and peasants alike did the American press and the United States government start paying attention. And this was more than two years after that first flight at Kitty Hawk.

After that the brothers spent more time in lawyers' offices than in the air. In 12 lawsuits against those who stole their ideas and claimed them as their own, they won them all. Even then it was others who most profited from the invention of powered flight.

McCullough tells this story with his usual style that presents potentially difficult subject matter in a manner any reader can understand. He also widens the scope of the Wright genius to include not just the brothers but also their sister Katherine, the only Wright sibling with a college degree, whose support and ability at public relations aided their effort. Also, often ignored, there was Charlie Taylor, a mechanical whiz who was first hired to mind the bicycle shop while the brothers were away playing with airplanes but who soon became indispensable for his skill at building and repairing engines.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
David McCullough brings us up close to the Wright brothers as they dared to master human flight. Their remarkable and life-altering feat is well known to most school children only in a mythological sense—a couple of bicycle mechanics took a crude flying machine to Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903 and flew it a few feet down the dunes. In no way does this capture their struggle, dedication, true genius, perseverance and bravery. McCullough’s book makes no attempt to tell all of the historical and technical facts surrounding their amazing feat. Others have done this well enough. Instead he writes a highly accessible story of two unusually bright and clever young men who were steadfast in their goal of conquering manned flight and were supported by a loving family. After reading this book, one is left with the impression that the brothers’ background was an important prerequisite for their ultimate success. It is difficult to imagine success without the significant advantages they derived from their rather commonplace American background. They seem to have received tenaciousness from their mother; the loving support they received from their father and sister imbued them with a strong work ethic and a sense that failure was acceptable, just as long as it taught you something; their closeness to each other made the scientific method natural for them—hypothesize, test in well controlled environments, criticize the results, revise the hypothesis based on those results and retest. They carefully analyzed the state of knowledge by reading, querying experts and watching the birds fly. Their mechanical expertise and meticulousness seems to have been born in the bike shop, but they carried that to greater heights in their efforts to control the wind.

The Wrights did not choose Kitty Hawk capriciously. It had reliable winds, sand dunes for elevation needed for takeoffs and soft landings and the solitude that was so important for meticulous experimenting. Clearly this choice came at a cost, however, because of the lack of basic infrastructure, mosquito infestations, foul weather and isolation from familial support. Their tenacity in the face of all of this and willingness to return again and again for eight years is truly jaw dropping.

The most shocking revelation McCullough makes in the book, however, is the almost total disregard for their feat in America. While others were spending massive amounts of money and failing, the Wrights were making exquisitely controlled and long flights in an Ohio field. In the you-tube world of today, it seems utterly amazing that Americans could refuse to see what was right before their eyes for several years. It is a testament to their character that the Wrights refused to comment negatively on their competitors’ failures, and their desire to offer their flying machine first to the American War Department despite being repeatedly rebuffed and considered as kooks. Ultimately, the world took notice, but it had to come by way of France and Germany.

McCullough pays scant attention to the brothers’ trials following the recognition of their success and Wilbur’s untimely death. Two ironic and interesting aspects of that time seemed worthy of exploration, but may have gone beyond the scope that McCullough intended for this book. One was Orville’s lack of time for flight due to business and litigious concerns and the other was his curious behavior toward his sister, Katherine, when she decided to marry at age 52. Someone who has had success with historically based psychological fiction might better handle those issues.
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LibraryThing member BDartnall
As always, McCullough knows how to weave just enough historical details into whatever biography he's telling- providing context for the timeperiod and emphasizing the person's place in it. The Wright brothers were a fascinating pair - and so thoroughly "American" - truly archetypes for the turn of the twentieth century. Loved reading the incredible efforts and persistence they took to achieve successful, man-piloted flight. An inspiring read with just enough psychological insight backed with first person accounts and personal details to make it even more engaging.… (more)
LibraryThing member michigantrumpet
To present day eyes, many people seek to claim a connection to air flight innovators Wilbur and Orville Wright. Two states on their car license plates: Ohio, by dint of their residence in Dayton, and North Carolina, site of their transformative flight at Kitty Hawk. They are represented at two aeronautical museums – in Dayton and at the Smithsonian. And yet, during much of their admittedly humble lifetimes, the brothers did not receive the credit they deserved. Their United Brethren Bishop father could have recited Luke 4:24 to them: “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”

And yet, accolades were of little importance to the two. Possessing only a high school education, no formal training and little money, they enjoyed instead an abundance of determination, ingenuity, diligence, and rectitude. With a staggering single-mindedness, they managed to succeed where other more connected, well funded efforts failed. Their first manned powered flight on the Outer Banks cost them $1000. At the same time, an failed effort spearheaded by the US government and the Smithsonian had run up $75,000. To most, they were seen as eccentrics and word of their flight barely merited a mention in the papers. The US government and military initially rebuffed the Wrights’ efforts for the use of their technology. They became mired in patent disputes and an ugly feud with the Smithsonian. Amazingly, where America shrugged, France opened their arms in welcome, recognition and adoration. Fortunately, their countrymen soon came around. A century ago, the Wright Brothers surprised many with their amateur tinkering. That same ethos is alive and well today with garage dwelling computer pioneers and youthful programmers and app developers.

Pulitzer Prize winning (“Truman”, “John Adams”) biographer and historian David McCullough is well known to many. His voice is instantly familiar to millions from his narration of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and hosting PBS’ “American Experience.” In this present volume, I would say he got it just about right for a general reader. The level of technical detail is enough to convey the challenges faced and engineering feats accomplished without putting off an unsavvy reader. Those with a desire for a highly detailed technological approach will have to look elsewhere. The narrative is fast-paced and engaging with an eye for the telling detail. For example, when astronaut Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, he carried a patch of wing fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer. I worked as an historical interpreter at Dearborn’s Greenfield Village to which the Wright Brothers’ Dayton homestead and bicycle shop were moved in the 1930’s. I’ve spent many hours in those two locations and McCullough’s descriptions were absolutely accurate.
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LibraryThing member BruceCoulson
Curiously truncated. McCullough usual excellent writing and research for most of the book, detailing the early lives of the Wright family (not just Orville and Wilbur, but the influences on their lives, especially their father, and their sister Katherine, first woman to fly). But it trails off at the end, glossing over the lawsuits and controversies that dogged the Wrights after their initial flights and demonstrations. Dealing with the full extent of the duplicity of Curtis, Langley, and the Smithsonian would have easily doubled the size of the book, but given McCullough's prior works that's hardly a sufficient reason to reduce those conflicts to a handful of sentences.… (more)
LibraryThing member Doondeck
McCullough does his usual good job of providing intimate details of this pair. We seem to forget how monumental was the accomplishment of these two.
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Wright Brothers, David McCullough, narrated by David McCullough.
The book is read by the author, clearly, with perfect pronunciation, but sometimes his voice is drones on in a monotone. Since the book is really interesting, I suggest the print version over the audio. The story of the Wright Brothers is filled with so many interesting tidbits of information about their family dynamics, their efforts to create a flying machine, and world opinion about that endeavor, that it would be a shame to zone out and miss some charming fact because of a lack of expression.
Brilliant and talented, the Wright brothers were born into a time of wonderful innovation. By the early 1900’s, technology had made great strides. There were sewing machines, steam engines, bicycles, typewriters, cameras and horseless carriages. The time was ripe for new inventions. All of the Wrights were well brought up. Their father was a Bishop and the family had good values. They held each other in high esteem with great respect for, and strong loyalties to, each other. Although some thought that the brothers were fools for trying to create a flying machine, the family supported and stood by them throughout their years of struggle.
Orville was the younger of the two brothers, and while Wilbur was analytical, Orville was the more hands on partner. Together they made a perfect team. They truly admired each other and worked well together. They were frugal, building whatever they needed without turning to the outside world for help. To test the results of their work, they needed a remote place with the best climate for their project. It brought them to Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Through constant trial and error, after about a decade of laborious research and testing, they finally achieved acclaim in the United States. For several years before that, they were recognized in Europe, but America came late to their table.
Although the brothers did not have much higher education, they were so bright and dedicated that they accomplished amazing things, against all odds. When young, although illness plagued Wilbur, he overcame his weakness and began working earnestly with his brother Orville as soon as he was able. First they started a local newspaper and then opened a bicycle store, tweaking the bicycles to make them better and better, proceeding to grow until they were building special order, custom bicycles. Then, captivated by the thought that birds held the secret to flight, they began to study the creatures and read all available information on them, some of which they acquired through the Smithsonian Institute. Their meticulous research and documentation, followed by careful observation, experimentation and demonstrations, brought them success. Even when they experienced failure and serious injury as they tested their machines, they maintained a sense of optimism and with infinite patience continued their uphill struggle, confronting ridicule with courage and fortitude.
The bicycle shop financed their attempts to build the flying machine, since that was their full time work, and the attempt to build an airplane was merely an extracurricular activity, a sideline and an obsession, in a way. It was Katharine Wright, their sister, who helped run the shop in their absence and stood by them for many years at the expense of her own life. Originally a teacher, she was keen to help the brothers accomplish their goal and, in later years, she was with them in Europe where their success was first acknowledged.
Never married, the brothers and their sister remained very close, as did the rest of the entire, tight-knit family. Wilbur died young but Orville lived deep into his seventies. When Katharine married at 58, Orville was devastated and cut off ties with her for most of the rest of his life. However, out of respect for his brother, he continued his marketing efforts for flying machines! The book brings the Wrights to life and reads more like a novel than a biography about brilliant brothers. Aided by a sister, who sacrificed most of her life supporting their efforts, and parents that encouraged hard work and perseverance, parents and a family that helped them to be all they could be, they made history and improved the lives of countless millions.
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LibraryThing member MrDickie
I enjoyed the book. I think Mr. McCullough ran out of interest at the end of the book. He only wrote two sentences about the tests at College Park, Maryland and explained very little about the various patent lawsuits. I borrowed the copy I read from the county library and recommend that others do the same.
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
David McCullough is one of the best living non-fiction authors. There is not a wasted sentence or word, it flows with richness and vividness never failing to hold your attention and interest. There are probably more in-depth books, that show a darker side or less savory moments. But for an introduction and baseline understanding this can't be beat.

Sadly. I suspect it may be McCullough's last book, due to his age and because he drops a mention to every book he has written - the Johnstown Flood, the Brooklyn Bridge, Revolutionary War, Panama Canal. A career summary as he flies away into the sky on the wings of his boyhood heroes.
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LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
I enjoyed this. My knowledge of the Wrights and the beginnings of aviation was extremely limited before this. I knew only that they made bicycles and flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk. But there is a lot more interesting stuff to know.
LibraryThing member Writermala
What could be more interesting than the story of the discovery of flight? And, who better to tell this story than two-time Pulitzer winning author David McCullough?
I loved reading the story of Wilbur and Orville Wright - the unpretentious brothers who changed the way man travels. They challenged the belief that man could not fly. They learned the art of flying from the birds and went about proving the naysayers wrong in their quiet way.
One of the eyewitnesses of their earliest experiments describes the experience as "I don't think I ever saw a prettier sight in my life;" and the Wright brothers as the two "workingest Boys" he knew!
You will never again be blase about an airplane ride after reading this thrilling book.
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LibraryThing member debnance
I didn’t know much about the Wright Brothers before I read this David McCullough book. I didn’t know the brothers were close. I didn’t know the brothers never married. I didn’t know that they lived with their sister and their father until they died. I didn’t know that the brothers had no formal education past high school. I didn’t know that the brothers learned many of the concepts they used in their invention of the airplane from their bicycle shop.

I learned a lot about the Wright Brothers from this great book.
A song sticks in my head from a childhood Golden record I had…”The Wright Brothers were right….”
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LibraryThing member davevanl
Although I have known about the Wright brothers since I was in grade school, I am amazed at how little I knew about them. Thanks, Mr. McCullough!
LibraryThing member drmaf
People often tell me "history is boring", whereupon I quote examples to show to that no, history is not boring. I just hope none of those people ever come up to me waving this book around and telling me "See, I told you, history is boring!", because, unfortunately, in this case, I would have to agree. This book is dull, D-U-L-L! Not entirely the fault of the author, although I think his style could do with some work. Basically, the Wright Brothers were fairly boring guys. They invented powered flight, yes, but they did it in such an eminently practical way, that's it just not very exciting to read about. Basically they were businessmen and they went about designing powered flight like it was a business. Maybe this book could have been subsumed into a greater history of the beginnings of flight, along with true daredevils like Bleriot and Dumont, where the Wrights could have been fitted in neatly with their proper place as pioneers. I'm sorry, I really wanted to like this book, and I really wanted to learn about the Wrights. This book is eminently "worthy",- dignified and ponderous - it reads like a high school text book. And I have to say, the Laurel & Hardy photo on the cover of the edition I read did not inspire confidence when I first picked it up - it echoed the tone of the book perfectly.… (more)
LibraryThing member santhony
David McCollough is perhaps my favorite writer of non-fiction. Over the years, I have read virtually all of his work, some of which were biographies (Truman, John Adams, Morning on Horseback), while others have detailed important historical events (Johnstown Flood, Path Between the Seas, 1776, The Great Bridge). I have yet to find any product of his pen that was not meticulously researched and engagingly presented, The Wright Brothers being no exception. It should be noted, however, that this is not a highly detailed or technically dense book. It was written for a mass audience and seekers of engineering calculations or technical schematics might need to look elsewhere.

Prior to reading the book, I probably knew as much about the Wright Brothers as most Americans: Bicycle shop owners from Ohio who pioneered heavier than air, manned flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Certainly, all of that is true, but McCollough fleshes out not only the lives of the brothers and their close relations, but also touches upon the historical and aeronautic landscape as it existed at the turn on the 20th century. In that respect, it is a hybrid of the authors other work, not just a biography, but an overview of an incredibly important historical, the advent of manned flight and the key characters that ushered it in.

As with all of McCollough’s work, I highly recommend it. At only roughly 250 pages of narrative text, it is a quick and easy read. If you are a McColllough fan, you will undoubtedly acquire it. If you have never read his work, this is a great place to start. Unless I am terribly mistaken, you will then seek out his other more substantial books.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
I am a big fan of the history books that David McCullough comes out with...and this was one was quite good. This book is a nice blend of the personal history of the two Brothers including insight into their character & personality. As the book progresses, McCullough mixes in nice background explanations of the larger social/political context. A captivating read...I wished it was longer!… (more)
LibraryThing member burnit99
David McCullough has become that rare historian whose books I will read just because he is the author. His writing draws the reader into the times and lives of his subjects, and his reputation as an honest and objective historian is impeccable. This book, about the brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who entered the growing field of would-be aviators after reading of others' failures in the field, is rich and satisfying, a story of two modest geniuses who devised their own ways of studying the science of flight (inventing the first wind tunnel), and came up with revolutionary ideas and the practical means to make them work. Typically, after their first successes, a cautious U.S. Government showed little interest in their inventions, and Wilbur and Orville traveled to France to achieve fame and fortune among a much more appreciative people. But the Americans did, of course, eventually become aware of the Wright Brothers' amazing conquests of the air, and the brothers achieved all the credit, fame and fortune their talents and hard work entitled them to.

There is a healthy collection of good photographs, including one of the most important and famous photographs ever made, the first powered flight on December 17, 1903, Orville at the controls.The most moving passage was near the end, when I learned that "On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright Brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 Flyer."
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LibraryThing member lanewillson
I’ve long enjoyed the writing of David McCullough, especially his presidential biographies. His latest work, The Wright Brothers, seemed a bit restrained at first. But as the incredible achievement of Orville and Wilbur took shape, McCullough’s restraint became an ode to the brothers’ manner and work ethic.

Becoming the first to fly was dream being chased by men around the globe, and many had every asset available to their efforts. Most notably, Samuel Langley, had the education, reputation, money and focused purpose that made Langley, the third ever Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the odds-on favorite to become the first to fly.

Neither of the Wright brothers graduated high school, let alone earned a college degree. The earnings of their bicycle shop were the only financial support at their disposal. Though ultimately it worked in their favor, Orville and Wilbur were virtually unknown even in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

Fueled by the inspiration of the Wright brothers, in one generation America went from becoming the first to achieve sustained, manned, powered flight, to placing a man on the moon. It would be very easy to get lost in the enormity of progress, or mired in trying to create the perspective that does justice to historical significance. McCullough does not fall into these traps, and his simple, crisp writing creates the room needed for the story of the Wright brothers to told by in the unmistakable voice of their work.
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LibraryThing member labdaddy4
An excellent example of an in-depth historical examination of the early days of manned flight. I especially enjoyed the depth the author employed in the view given to all of us regarding the strength of character constantly exhibited by Orville and Wilbur Wright. They were amazingly strong, focused, and driven. Their passion, intelligence, and ability to innovate are an amazing example of human inventiveness. The Wright brothers are an American treasure. David McCollough brings it all vividly to life. Thank You.… (more)



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