“The Wright Brothers”
by David McCullough; Simon & Schuster; May 2015; 336 pp; $30
By Ann Jonas
For The Visitor
Soon after reading “The Wright Brothers,” David McCullough’s new biography, I took a trip to Oregon and back. While soaring though the skies at an altitude of some 30,000 feet, I marveled at how Orville and Wilbur Wright made this possible, though most of us give them nary a thought when we’re traveling by air.
Historian McCullough, who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for his biographies, has drawn on personal diaries, notebooks and private family letters to give us an interesting account of the two men from Dayton, Ohio, who had the vision and determination to make aviation possible.
A small toy helicopter, a gift brought home from France by their father, was the brothers’ inspiration, back when they were in grade school. Simply a stick with two wooden propellers and twisted rubber bands, the toy sparked their imaginations for years to come.
Wilbur and his younger brother Orville, were especially close-knit — virtually inseparable. McCullough doesn’t detail the boys’ youth; instead focusing on their adult lives, especially the time leading up to and after their flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
Their younger sister Katharine, who taught high school Latin in Dayton, lived at home with Orville, Wilbur and their father, and was the only college graduate in the family. Their father, Milton Wright, was a bishop and preacher in the United Brethren Church and traveled a great deal. Their mother died from tuberculosis in 1889, when the brothers were young adults. Bishop Wright, who was a lifelong lover of books, strongly encouraged his children to read and have open and receptive minds.
While still in high school, Orville started his own print shop in a shed behind their house and soon Wilbur joined him. A few years later bicycles had become all the rage around the country and, in 1893, Wilbur and Orville opened their own small business, selling and repairing bicycles.
Their business thrived as they developed their own model bicycles. In 1896, though, Orville contracted typhoid fever. Wilbur and Katharine took turns nursing him back to health and spent many hours at his bedside. During this time, Wilbur read aloud to Orville about Otto Lilienthal, a German glider enthusiast who had recently died in a gliding accident. The news of Lilienthal’s death sparked Wilbur’s interest and he immediately read everything he could find on the flight of birds, which inspired him to think in ways he never had before. After recovering from his illness, Orville read the same books.
In May 1899, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting papers published on the subject of human flight. He received numerous Smithsonian pamphlets on aviation along with a list of books on the subject. Both Wilbur and Orville began ardently studying and, later that summer, designed and built their first experimental glider-kite.
“The Wright Brothers” details how the brothers funded their own inventions, endured countless setbacks and made repeated small improvements to their flying machine before finally taking flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
Wilbur was most definitely a genius and Orville was mechanically gifted, both without the benefit of engineering degrees. What is most evident in the book is the brothers’ vision, tenacity, ingenuity and quiet certainty that they could create a flying machine. The book follows the brothers’ lives after Kitty Hawk to the end of their lives.
McCullough has given us a compelling and well-researched narrative of two historical figures whose invention changed the world. The book contains many interesting photographs to enhance the writing.
“The Wright Brothers” is available in bookstores everywhere including the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University Bookstores.
Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.