The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right. So when I showed my 9-year-old granddaughter this book that I was reading and asked her if she knew what it was about, she gave me the riddle, “What do two rights make?” An airplane of course.
David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author for Truman and John Adams has taken on two additional American heroes, Wilbur and Orville Wright. McCullough had a trove of documents to work on, mostly now residing in the Library of Congress and in museums in the Wright Brothers hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Obviously there were no instant messages, iPhones, or e-mail correspondence during their lifetimes and like many of their contemporaries, they wrote numerous letters and kept extensive diaries. McCullough mined these sources as well as the newspapers and magazines of that era.
Wilbur was four years older than Orville. They had two older brothers and a younger sister and there were two twins born in between Orville and Wilbur who died at birth. Their father was a Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren of Christ who traveled a great deal. Their mother, who it was said to had given them their mechanical ability, died three years before their first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1902. The family was very close and supported each other. Katharine, the sister, who was a teacher shared very much in the Wright Brothers’ success and traveled with them at the time that they received worldwide acclaim.
Perhaps it is a screen memory (an unconscious one constructed in retrospect) but the brothers recalled their father bringing home a toy for them when they were quite young which was a helicopter which flew with twisted rubber bands and suggested that this possibly was the origin of their interest in flying. A first-grade teacher remembers Orville sitting at his desk with bits of wood and telling her he was making a machine of a kind that he and his brother would fly someday.
Wilbur and Orville were obviously extremely bright although they never went to college. They opened a print shop while in high school and went on to open a bicycle store where they made and sold bicycles. This was the environment in which they began working on a flying machine.
McCullough traces with the accuracy of the historian that he is, each step of the Wright Brothers journey. Initially building a glider and then the development of intricate wings that could do special movement that the brothers meticulously developed. He describes the addition of the motor and propeller. We learned about the people throughout the world who were trying to be the first in flight and their relationship with the Wright Brothers. This book focuses mainly on an approximate a 10-year period from Kitty Hawk to the glorious flights in Paris and New York.
Overall, there seemed to be great camaraderie between the various pioneers of flight throughout the world with the Wright Brothers. However, there were some conflicts and some patent disputes that the Wright Brothers had with other flyers of the day. Ultimately, there was tremendous acclaim for the Wright Brothers. I think it is worth quoting the words of President Taft upon presenting the Wright Brothers with some awards in the White House. He said:
I esteem it a great honor and an opportunity to present these medals to you as an evidence of what you have done.I am so glad perhaps at a delayed hour to show that in America it is not true that “a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” It is especially gratifying thus to note a great step in human discovery by paying honor to men who bear it so modestly. You made this discovery by a course that we of America like to feel is distinctly American – by keeping your noses right at the job until you have accomplished which you had determined to do.
According to McCullough there was rarely friction between the Wright Brothers themselves. They were a well oiled team who understood each others’ strengths and worked very smoothly together. While their relationship was detailed very clearly, what seemed to be missing was their personal lives. Either the author chose not to include any special social interactions or there essentially were none. It is hard to believe that there is no mention of any girlfriends or romantic interests. When Wilbur died in 1912 at the age of 45, Orville and his sister Katherine moved into a new house with their father. Orville became involved in their business details which now were quite complicated as the famed inventor. When at the age of 59 his sister decided to get married, Orville was reported to be very disturbed and negative about her plan which she carried out anyway.
I, probably like most of you, take flying for granted. I am more concerned about the arrival time, legroom, and how I should occupy myself during the flight. David McCullough’s book provides an unforgettable tribute to the brothers from Dayton, Ohio who made all of our flights possible.