December 30, 2016


Brothers of invention : A review of The Wright Brothers by David Mccullough (Michael Taube, June 2015, The New Criterion)

With no college education between them, the Wright brothers became entrepreneurs. They ran a series of failed daily and weekly newspapers and repaired and sold bicycles in a store close to their Dayton home.

Yet their thoughts often returned to the flight of birds and especially flying machines. In the latter case, this was something that had intrigued them since their father brought home a small toy helicopter, with twin propellors and rubber bands, that the then-young boys called the "bat." Inspired by aviation pioneers, including Pierre Mouillard and Otto Lilienthal, the "dream had taken hold" of them. These individuals had "infected us with their own unquenchable enthusiasm," the brothers remarked, "and transformed idle curiosity into the active zeal of workers."

Orville and Wilbur worked on different prototypes, including a glider-kite. Their first aircraft was a biplane, made of split bamboo and paper. They contacted the U.S. Weather Bureau to identify the best potential flying location for wind velocity. This, in turn, led them to Kitty Hawk, which "offered all the isolation one might wish for to carry on experimental work in privacy."

Chapter after chapter, the Wright brothers' pursuit of their American Dream is detailed in McCullough's elegant writing and passion for history and storytelling.

Early aviation experts, and the Smithsonian Institution, didn't pay much attention to them in the beginning. The Wrights were seen as outsiders (or worse) with no education, connections, or experience to prove their mettle. Their determination was dogged, however. Reading all they could and contacting anyone who would speak with them, they constructed the Wright Flyer, or "whopper flying machine" as they liked to call it, over four grueling years.

Then, it flew. On multiple occasions. With witnesses on the ground.

"They had endured violent storms," writes McCullough, "accidents, one disappointment after another, public indifference or ridicule, and clouds of demon mosquitoes." But none of this mattered--"they had done it." Their achievement was "one of the turning points in history, the beginning of change for the world far greater than any of those present could have possibly imagined."

U.S. media organizations could hardly contain their enthusiasm, including Scientific American. The Wright Flyer was eventually patented, and the Wright Company was incorporated. More versions of their airplane were built. Contracts were signed with a French syndicate and the U.S. Army. Legions of doubters, especially in Europe, became believers after a successful August 8, 1908 flight in Le Mans, France.

In one of my favorites bits from Brian Lamb, he was talking to Mr. McCullough about a Picasso project he abandoned and the author said he couldn't write the book because he found the artist so despicable.  But he should never even have bothered with work on a subject who wasn't American.  The nature of the country and its people deeply infuses every biography/history he writes and makes the books a joy to read.

Posted by at December 30, 2016 7:59 AM