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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….”
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.
The depictions of their years of trial and experiment at Kitty Hawk, NC show how this sandy, wind-swept location was ideally suited for their efforts.
Wilbur died a relatively young man. Orville lived until after WWII and saw the devastation that could be wrought by the aerial descendants of their invention.
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.
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.
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.
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.