Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Provides Insight into the Wright Brothers
This past December, The Blue Origin Company’s New Shepard space capsule made space exploration history by soft landing in West Texas, proving that expensive boosters could be reusable. The feat has been hailed as the “holy grail of space flight.” No one seemed to notice, however, that the date was almost to the day 112 years after flight began on the outer banks of North Carolina. There, on a windy, wintry day, December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, and soon after back home in Dayton, Ohio on the less windy Huffman Prairie (55 test flights over five months), Wilbur and Orville Wright (Orville at the controls - they never flew together) demonstrated before only a handful of insider people that their invention of a heavier-than-air flying machine worked, even though no one in Washington at the time seemed to be interested. Pictures from the control room of the historic December 22, 2015 accomplishment show scientists and technicians (not to mention company chair Jeff Bezos) wild with delight. Even so, that jubilation is nothing like the reported mob scenes of frenzied celebration that greeted what the boys from Dayton repeatedly pulled off before dubious crowds in France (Wilbur) and at Fort Myer, Virginia (Orville) five years after Kitty Hawk. In his best-selling book, The Wright Brothers (Simon and Schuster), the Pulitzer Prize winning historian and writer David McCullough, a recent recipient of The Presidential Medal of Freedom Citation, explores what the Wright Brothers accomplished and how they accomplished it. It is a beautifully written narrative of compelling interest that shows why McCullough is a master storyteller.
A biography of the two young men (Wilber was four years older) as much as a cultural history of the times, regional, national and international, The Wright Brothers, though a bit too long and at 320 pages, at times overly detailed (yet for all that, superbly researched, authentic, reliable and always accessible as writing on science and technology), the book engages by capturing the essence of the brothers, “unidentical twins” in many ways, eating together, working together,
banking together and as Wilbur once said, “thinking” together (the photos are wonderful). They were also blessed with a remarkably close family who were supportive to a degree that might stir a bit of concern along with envy: their adored and adoring father, a Bishop and a widower, was always at their side and never didactic. Their younger sister Katherine, a graduate of Oberlin. was a sharply intelligent, fiercely affectionate advocate. When she married, Orville (Wilbur had died of typhoid fever at the age of 44) refused to go to her wedding. Neither brother ever married or alluded to any romantic relationships, though Wilbur was obviously an object of attraction, especially in Paris). Neither had a college education (though both read widely and well, particularly Wilbur) and no “formal technical training or experience working -with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.” They were in the bicycle business in Dayton and doing pretty well. Both brothers knew they were sitting on the shoulders of others, namely a German glider enthusiast Otto Lilienthal, killed during one of his experiments, but they were always confident that they knew why and how others failed to fly. They persevered despite hardship doing their calculations and refinements on The Flyer - wing span, angles, weight of engine, propeller.
Their letters alone are accomplishments, models of clear science writing and modesty. Indeed, Wilber’s early request of the Smithsonian for papers on human flight is remarkable. He was an “enthusiast,” he wrote, “not a crank in the sense that [he] had some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.” In retrospect, the letters evoke nostalgia for a time when people invested in written communication, not to mention close observation of the natural world, here, especially of birds. The book also captures how some things never change in the jealously guarded business world. Others tried to steal their work, challenge their patents, discredit them , including Alexander Graham Bell. But much more often than not their basic honest characters won the day and won them legions of admirers who risked their own money to see them succeed. Wilbur and Orville Wright were brilliant, original, daring, virtuous, ironic, determined, one of an American kind. This reviewer confesses to having fallen in love with Wilbur. #