The Wright Brothers: A book review by Bob Morris

Wright BrothersThe Wright Brothers
David McCullough
Simon & Schuster (2015)

“Now they had only to build a motor.”

David McCullough’s research and writing skills (especially storytelling) are again obvious in this, his tenth and latest book. In my opinion, what differentiate McCullough from other historians in his generation are his skills as an anthropologist. He establishes a deep human context for two brothers who co-own a bicycle shop in Ohio and dream of creating a craft that, once aloft, can propel itself for extended periods of time and distance. His scope is narrower than in any of his nine previous books. That is, his focus primary is on Orville and Wilbur Wright and their efforts to design and build, initially, what they envisioned as a “glider-kite.”

These items in McCullough’s narrative were of special interest to me:

o Wilbur and Orville Wright never married because Wilbur was “woman-shy” and Orville would not marry until his older brother did.

o According to McCullough, they “worked together six days a week, ate their meals together, kept their money in a joint bank account” and even, according to Wilbur, “thought together.”

o Also, “The difficulty was not to get into the air but to stay there.” The Wrights built their first aircraft from split bamboo and paper. Kitty Hawk (North Carolina) had open space and an ample supply of a precious commodity: wind. The idea was to master gliding, after which Wilbur reckoned it would be easy to add a motor. “Maintaining equilibrium was the key—not much different than riding a bike.”

o At the conclusion of Part I, McCullough summarizes the significance of successful experimentation, to date, in Kill Devil Hills: “They knew exactly what they had accomplished. They knew they had solved the problem of flight and more. They had acquired the knowledge and the skill to fly. They could soar, they could float, they could dive and rise, circle and glide and land, all with assurance. Now they had only to build a motor.”

o They lived and worked at a time, according to McCullough, that was “alive with invention: recent wonders included the Kodak box camera, the Singer electric sewing machine and the safety razor. McCullough celebrates Dayton as “a city in which inventing and making things were central to the way of life.”

o McCullough affirms the basic values shared by those on whom Walter Isaacson focuses in The Innovators. Wilbur and Orville Wright do indeed exemplify what can be accomplished when having a vision, determination, ingenuity, resiliency, and very hard work. John T. Daniels witnessed the first successful flight (lasting 12 seconds on December 17, 1903) and said that the Wrights were “the workingest boys he had ever seen.”

As we now know, that flight really did “change the world” eventually, after the general public’s initial indifference and then extensive litigation to determine who owned what. McCullough observes in the Epilogue, “of greatest importance to both – more than the money at stake – was to secure just and enduring credit for having invented the airplane. It was their reputation at stake and that mattered most.” True to character, Wilbur and Orville Wright duly acknowledged various sources from which they obtained valuable information, notably J. Pell Pettigrew, Octave Chanute, Pierre Mouillard, and Otto Lillenthal.

The book concludes with a classic David McCullough touch: “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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