I’m sure there are readers who can compare this history / biography to what’s been published before but I imagine that I’m more typical. My knowledge of Wilbur and Orville Wright is reduced to a few bullet points.
They were the first to fly in a powered aircraft.
They were from Ohio.
They were bike mechanics before the big discovery.
And they first flew on the beach in North Carolina—at Kitty Hawk.
Reading “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough, needless to say, filled in so many blanks: how and why these two brothers put themselves on the quest; how they managed to focus and study; how they managed to not give up, given so many doubters and nay-sayers; how they dealt with the reaction to their discovery; and what happened to the brothers in the years after everything about transportation began to change.
I also had zero awareness of their sister’s role, particularly post-Kitty Hawk, and I had no sense of how much they flew and demonstrated their “flying machines” once they mastered their skills.
More than anything else, David McCullough’s history offers a true sense of their character. Their virtues seem so old-fashioned. They were understated, undeterred, and tireless.
And they were keen, precise observers. I loved the scenes of Wilbur Wright walking around Paris for the first time, making notes about urban planning, art and architecture.
To me, the biggest surprise was finding out that the United States government, at the time, didn’t believe reports (at first) of what the brothers had accomplished. The government wanted paperwork when an eyeball would have done the trick.
The Wright Brothers gained more credibility and traction overseas, particularly in France, before the U.S. came around. The local Dayton newspaper, in fact, long ignored the fact that the Wright Brothers (post-Kitty Hawk) were busy flying, regularly, in a nearby field.
It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a century since humans started taking to the air on a regular basis, to the point today where we take it for granted and want our flights to be on time, coast to coast.
Is it possible to quantify the changes based on the work of The Wright Brothers? Sure, somebody else would have figured it out if they had failed and everything else might be the same. But the Wright Brothers, the unusual bicycle mechanics from Dayton, were the ones to pull it off.
For someone with only a cursory sense of their work, I found “The Wright Brothers” remarkable. Like other McCullough works, the narrative is driven by facts and steady, easy prose.
Final note: For those considering an audio recording of this, I have to say that David McCullough’s reading is dry and plain. He reads with as little drama as he writes—none. Don’t expect a performance like Dick Hill or George Guidall.