The Wright Brothers
by David McCullough
Reviewed by Joseph Kellard
David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is an inspiring portrait of the siblings’ pursuit of the knowledge, trial-and-error experimentation and independence that led them to become the first to create and, just as important, learn how to fly an engine-powered airplane.
As well as reading of Wilbur and Orville making several trips back to the proverbial drawing board to rethink their errors and redesign their planes — before and after their historic flight on the wind-swept dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 — I thoroughly enjoyed learning about their lesser-known demonstrations of flight before large, skeptical crowds in France, their native Ohio, Washington D.C. and, especially, New York, where Wilbur soared around the Statue of Liberty and along the Hudson River.
While the Wrights worked relentlessly to make their first flight, the overwhelming consensus then was that it was impossible for man to fly and anyone who tried was a fool or crackpot. But as McCullough notes about the brothers’ self-assurance in their mission:
“In no way did any of this discourage or deter Wilbur or Orville Wright, any more than the fact that they had had no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own. Or the entirely real possibility that at some point … they could be killed.” (p.35)
Later, McCullough re-emphasizes their independence of thought and action when he draws a contrast between the Wrights and one of their competitors, Samuel Langley. Above all, the book demonstrates the absolute devotion the brothers had to aeronautics and to be pioneers in flight, while Langley appears to have had little to no comparable passion or purpose. McCullough calls his efforts to fly a “full-scale failure.” He continues:
“Not incidentally, the Langley project had cost nearly $70,000, the greater part of it public money; whereas the brothers’ total expenses for everything from 1900 to 1903, including materials and travel to and from Kitty Hawk, came to a little less than $1,000, a sum paid entirely from the modest profits of their bicycle business.” (p. 108)
McCullough recognizes the brilliance and contributions of both brothers and highlights the crucial support they received from certain mentors, their sister Katharine, father Bishop, and Charlie Taylor, the man employed at their Dayton bicycle shop who built the engine for their 1903 plane. Nevertheless, the author properly singles out Wilbur, the elder brother, as the indispensable genius or fountainhead behind their achievements.
The Wright Brothers concludes rather abruptly, after Wilbur’s untimely death of typhoid fever at age 45 and when Orville, who outlived him for 36 years, retired from flying after injuries he suffered in a plane crash became too debilitating. But this terser tale underscores McCullough’s purpose, which is to write less of a biography than an account of what is most notable and historic about the aviators.
Moreover, I thought McCullough may provide a final-chapter summary of the brothers’ achievements and their impact on man’s life and history. Instead, his analysis of these factors are mostly brief and peppered throughout the book. I’ve always marveled at the fact that it took man up until the 1900s — and not coincidentally in the freest nation ever — to learn how to fly and later rocket to and walk on the moon during the same century (and from the same nation). In his closing words, McCullough offers a succinct nod to this outstanding achievement:
“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.” (p. 262)
In an interview with Ken Burns about The Wright Brothers, McCullough admitted that before he wrote the book he knew virtually nothing about them. About his study of the pioneering duo, he said:
“[History] reminds us constantly of the extraordinary people who went before us and whose accomplishments have made it a different world and a world in which we benefit enormously, and we owe them far more gratitude than we’re commonly used to expressing or that is commonly taught.”
McCullough certainly demonstrates his gratitude with his exceptional book.