The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

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Wilbur, left, and Orville Wright sit on the porch steps of their Dayton, Ohio, home in June 1909. Photo Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

In as strong a photograph as any taken of the brothers together, they sit side by side on the back porch steps of the Wright family home on a small side street on the west end of Dayton, Ohio. The year was 1909, the peak of their fame. Wilbur was forty-two, Orville thirty-eight. Wilbur, with a long poker face, looks off to one side, as though his mind were on other things, which most likely it was. He is lean, almost gaunt, long of nose and chin, clean-shaven, and bald. He wears a plain dark suit and high-laced shoes, much in the manner of their preacher father.

Orville gazes straight at the camera, one leg crossed nonchalantly over the other. He is a bit stouter and younger-looking than his brother and has a touch more hair, in addition to a well-trimmed mustache. He wears a lighter-toned, noticeably better-tailored suit, snappy argyle socks, and wingtips. The argyles were about as far in the direction of frippery as any of the Wright men would ever go. †

The above is an excerpt from the opening paragraphs of The Wright Brothers, a dazzling and absorbing biography by historian David McCullough. It’s rare for me to read a non-fiction book for pleasure, and yet this book gave me a greater sense of delight than most of the books I’ve read in recent years — mainly because it instilled such a deep sense of awe at what human beings can achieve when they focus their attention on doing just that: on achieving something not as a means of bolstering image or acquiring power, but because the endeavor itself is marked by wonder, poised in the direction of evolution, and accomplished by gaining a greater understanding of the universe we live in. Wilbur and Orville Wright were two small-town men from Ohio who had no advantages financially, socially, politically or educationally when they built the world’s first airplane and, in essence, gave the gift of flight to humankind. What they had instead was a close-knit family from which they inherited a few key things: a mechanical aptitude from their mother, a painfully shy woman who was a “regular genius” in the eyes of her family, known for making toys for her children that were better than the ones carried in stores; a love of learning from both parents — their minister father kept two libraries in their house, one of theological books and the other of varied subjects, and not only encouraged them to read widely but was a steadfast supporter of their endeavors; and the equally steadfast camaraderie of their sister Katherine, a school teacher who cared for the family home after their mother passed away and who attentively corresponded with the brothers during their many trips away from Dayton (she also spent seven weeks tending to Orville at a hospital in Virginia after he was seriously injured in a crash).

Even before they began building their first plane, the Wright brothers were engaged in pursuits that represented a marriage between mechanics and freedom. The first was a print shop started by Orville when he was in high school, which began publishing a newspaper for their hometown of Dayton, as well as a weekly newspaper for the black community proposed by Orville’s friend. Next was their bicycle shop, an enterprise that began as a dealership of sorts, with the two of them selling and repairing bikes, and progressed to them  building their own models, the most famous of which was the Van Cleeve bicycle, named in honor of their great-great-grandmother on their father’s side. Both businesses turned a profit, especially the cycle shop, which kept expanding and moving into larger establishments, providing a steady income and the finances for their explorations into aviation.  Not surprisingly, when automobiles arrived on the scene in Dayton, Orville suggested to Wilbur that they try building one of their own; however, Wilbur had no interest, his attention having become riveted on the notion of flying. It was a notion stirred from his reading about the German glider Otto Lilienthal, who believed that man could learn how to fly if he concentrated on studying the flights of birds, so Wilbur began reading and observing everything he could about birds. He then wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution which fully set his plans in action—a letter requesting scholarly papers and a list of books he could read on the subject of human flight. The letter was written in May 1899, and the Wright Brothers would make history a mere four years later, when they recorded their first flight on the beach of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.

Think about it: a mere four years in which these two men would accomplish more than most people do in their lifetime, often under extremely trying conditions. Not only were the brothers fully engaged in the intellectual and mechanical work of designing and building the flyers they took to Kitty Hawk, they labored like dogs to establish a working camp in that forlorn outpost which, at the time, was one of the most desolate spots on North Carolina’s outer banks. During their first sojourn there they stayed in a tent, which the fierce winds would pull from its stakes as they were trying to sleep at night. Thus, on their next expedition they had a supply of wood shipped into Kitty Hawk and the two men built a long, solid shed which served as hangar, workshop and camp. Their satisfaction in completing it was one of the few highlights of that trip. Not long after they finished they encountered an event that happens in the Outer Banks once every ten to twelve years: a cloud of mosquitoes descended upon their shore, so thick it practically blackened the sky. Mosquito netting over their cots did nothing: at night, they would dive under their covers to escape getting bit and then would be drenched in sweat from the July heat. While their expeditions in the fall and winter months were easier outings comparatively, sleeping would remain a fitful enterprise, as their blankets did little to ward off the intense ocean-wind and cold.

Wilbur Wright flying his and Orville Wright’s 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with the brothers’ camp and shed visible in the distance, 1903
Wilbur Wright flying his and Orville Wright’s 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with the brothers’ camp and shed visible in the distance, 1903

At Kitty Hawk the brothers proved why the world’s greatest inventors are often called pioneers. In addition to building their hangar, they had to dig a well for fresh water, haul in their supplies, cook their meals using limited foodstuffs, develop relationships with the few islanders who could help them in their experiments, and correspond home regularly to keep their bicycle business going and let their father and sister know they were all right. More astoundingly, though, they had to do the very thing that few people who are the “brains” or engineers of a grand and daring project ever do: they had to mount their flying machines and learn how to ride them, which, judging by the photos alone, required no small amount of bravery. And because it was natural for their flyers to crash during their trial runs, they had to spend considerable hours repairing them and making refinements.

One of the few men who witnessed that first flight of the Wright brothers, who came along to help that day, called them the two “workingest boys” he ever knew. That assessment is underscored throughout The Wright Brothers — at every turn of their story, McCullough shows us their affinity for rolling up their shirtsleeves, yet his account of the brothers is much fuller than that. Reading his book is akin to watching a film like Seabiscuit or witnessing the Chicago Cubs win the 2016 World Series: it makes the reader a front-row spectator to history being made in heroic, almost sporting fashion. He accomplishes this by depicting not only the brothers themselves but the world-stage upon which their accomplishments unfolded, and by allowing his biography to be as glittering as the act of flight itself. His deft portrayals of the audiences on both sides of the Atlantic that waited with bated breath to behold the brothers on their flying machines are coupled to McCullough’s arresting descriptions of the flights. Naturally, there were plenty of naysayers and detractors who didn’t believe human flight was possible, and the author mentions them, but whereas other biographers might pepper the story with more of these types of quotes for impact, McCullough emphasizes the sense of expectation that was met by the Wright brothers almost everywhere they went, once word from Kitty Hawk got out. What happened at Kitty Hawk was just the beginning, and McCullough allows the story to steadily build towards a climax by recounting the brothers’ untiring efforts to master the art of flying: of learning how to maneuver their mechanical birds higher, faster, farther, and over more challenging terrain and boundaries than the Outer Banks offered them.

He makes it clear that while they did almost everything together Orville and Wilbur weren’t co-pilots. Each brother flew separately and, in terms of skill, one did not lag behind the other. Both men became skilled jockeys and consistently worked at bettering their achievements. Whereas their first successful flight in Kitty Hawk could be measured in feet and spanned less than half the size of a football field, by 1909, Orville (who a year earlier had survived a horrendous crash in Washington DC that killed his passenger) made news at a demonstration in Potsdam, Germany, by flying to an altitude of 984 feet, “higher than anyone had yet flown in an airplane.” On or about the same day, Wilbur was making headlines in New York City, where he’d signed on for his first-ever paid public flight in the United States as part of an anniversary celebration commemorating Henry Hudson’s ascent of the Hudson River. On one of his practice runs,

Wireless signals went out, signal flags went up, and off he went. Instead of heading toward the mouth of the Hudson, as expected, he swung to the west into the wind and, flying over two ferryboats, headed straight for the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe’s Island, circled the statue, and sailed over over the Lusitania, which was then heading down the harbor, outward bound to Liverpool. Thousands of people were watching. Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan was thick with spectators, and passengers on deck on the Lusitania frantically waved hats, scarfs, handkerchiefs as Wilbur passed over their heads.

He maneuvered his plane with perfect control through a whole series of dips and turns. But it was the spectacle of Wilbur Wright and his flying machine circling the Statue of Liberty that made the most powerful impression, which would be talked about, written about, and remembered more than anything… †

McCullough’s description of such flights is worth the price of the book alone. They are the literary version of watching one’s favorite thoroughbred maneuver to the finish line of a Triple Crown race course. That said, perhaps the most delightfully surprising facet of reading The Wright Brothers is in discovering their “rightness” — the innate goodness and sense of decency of these two men. So often the people we admire as revolutionary inventors, leaders, or heroes turn out to be people who have burning hot temperaments to match their burning passions — some of them with a few skeletons in their closet. The Wright brothers, by all accounts in this book, were the kind of genuinely good men we want to believe in and cheer for. And they were admirable from a young age: the book’s opening chapter recounts how Wilbur, at eighteen, was seriously injured at a hockey game by a kid who viciously smashed him in the face with his stick. (This same kid later ended up murdering his own family.) Though he suffered excruciating pain, had to be fitted with false teeth, and had digestive complications and recurrent bouts with depression that left him a recluse for three years, he rarely spoke of the event afterwards and spent much of this time caring for his ailing mother.

Even after they became famous, the brothers put family first. Acknowledging the role their sister Katharine played in their success (she gave their lives a sense of foundation and kept things up and running when they were away), they took her to Paris with them on a celebratory trip  — a significant gesture that McCullough devoted an entire chapter to in the book.

Wilbur Wright at Le Mans France
Wilbur Wright, Le Mans, France, August 8, 1908.

One might wonder, after reading The Wright Brothers, whether he portrays the brothers in terms that are too good to be true. It is a reasonable question, yet there is example after example to back up such a portrait. As is noted by the book on its jacket cover, McCullough drew his story from “the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including personal diaries, notebooks, and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence.” That assurance might not be enough for some, but it is enough for this reader, who wants to believe there truly are honest, decent men and women with the “(W)right stuff” to not only succeed, but to soar beyond our wildest dreams.

David McCullough book The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers, copyright © 2015 by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2015, pp. 5 & 243)

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