The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Four stars

McCullough offers up and wonderful, though brief, biographical piece on the Wright Brothers, whose ideas and curiosities exemplify how boundless determination can literally turn the world on its head. While McCullough has stretched the traditional definition of biography with some of his past work, another unique approach is used in creating a single narrative for both brothers. As the reader will see, McCullough is not off base in doing things from this perspective, as Wilbur and Orville Wright were alike in many ways. These similarities extend to the three themes the author presents throughout the book, depicting the brothers as Dayton inventors, Ohio innovators, and American dreamers. These distinctions, while interconnected, arise independently throughout the narrative and offers the reader a better roadmap (or should I say flight plan?) when absorbing McCullough’s work. A great piece to interest any reader curious about the dawn of flight.

Wilbur and Orville Wright could easily be called the great Dayton inventors. They came from modest means and had a mid-sized family in Dayton, Ohio. Their sister, Katharine, was always close at hand and supported them through their exploratory phase, where the Wrights sought to better understand the world around them. Wilbur and Orville both had a penchant for inventing things, having left small projects scattered around the house from a young age. Although four years separated them, the brothers were inseparable and soon became partners in their printing business and opened and bicycle shop together, when that mode of transportation was all the rage. While raised in a religious household, Wilbur and Orville saw something else when they turned to the skies, the possibility of flight. They constructed numerous contraptions, formulating wings akin to those of birds and not flat bands of cloth over wood or metal skeletons. As McCullough argues, while European gliders were already taking to the skies, the Wrights wanted sustained flight, not entirely tied to wind velocity and clement weather. With no formal engineering education (nothing post-secondary at all), they worked on ideas to invent something that would allow them to soar in the air, at least for a time. The issue of flight did not originate with them, for as far back as da Vinci, scientists speculated about flight in a concrete manner. McCullough shows throughout the text that neither brother would accept the common argument that man was not meant to conquer the air, choosing instead to find a way, through their inventive minds, to bridge the gap.

Once they’d developed a prototype idea, the Wrights set their sights to become Ohio innovators, honing their craft outside Dayton. With the supplies needed and the intuition on how to turn an idea into reality, Orville and Wilbur devised a flying machine. After an exhaustive search they spent a few summers in the hamlet of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina fine tuning the machine and its core components. McCullough discusses how early prototypes sought to secure the wings in one spot, but the brothers soon learned that movement of the wings, outside of a sedentary position, was key to aeronautical success. By December 17, 1903, they took to the air and opened a new and exciting chapter in their lives. These innovations were not without stumbling blocks. Not only were the Wrights forced to wage war against the weather and physics, but a severe outbreak of mosquitos. Acting as their own personal Waterloo, these winged fiends drove Wilbur and Orville to shorten their experimental periods during at least one summer and proved an essential hurdle in the larger battle to see the inventive spirit blossom into innovative output that would change the world forever.  

The Wright Brothers took their invention and chose to become American dreamers, as they marketed the ideas for the world to see. While Wilbur headed over to France to firm up financial backing for the machines, Orville remained in America to show off the new machine. Both used this time to demonstrate the lengths to which their machines could function, performing death-defying feats of bravery, figure-8 loops, and sustained aeronautical abilities. Both caught the attention of the general public and royalty alike, offering primitive air shows and answers questions to the best of their abilities. McCullough posits that this was how Wilbur and Orville lived the American Dream on opposite sides of the ocean, both seeking a life of adventure while demonstration the lengths to which the machines could travel. They continued working on their flying machines, but had passed on the knowledge and tutored various military officers from a handful of countries about the art of flying. Making an indelible mark on history, Wilbur and Orville will forever be remembered for taking flight from a scientific question to a concrete reality, and all by chasing a dream.

McCullough uses the brief space he has to tell a wonderful story and keep the reader highly interested. As I have read a number of his past pieces, I was certain this tome would prove just as intriguing. Flight in general is too large a topic to handle in a biography, though the Wright Brothers as individuals is also too difficult, mainly because they were so interconnected. As McCullough discusses in the early chapters, they sounded alike, wrote alike, and even thought alike on occasion. Differentiating these men proves highly daunting, though their accomplishments can be equally attributed and therefore fits nicely in this joint piece. McCullough opens the door for the reader to learn more, should that be their desire. As with all McCullough pieces, the reader can pick or choose how much they want to take away, with so much from which to choose. 

Kudos, Mr. McCullough for your wonderful insight into early 20th century innovation. You have touched the historical and biographical world with so much of interest and yet you never cease to amaze me.