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Review: ‘The Wright Brothers’ by David McCullough


The Wright Brothers

By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster

336 pages, $30

By Edward Cuddihy


At first blush, the reader might be a little disappointed in noted historian David McCullough’s treatment of the Wright Brothers and their magnificent flying machine.

It seems there is not much drama in the telling of their story, not much pizzazz from a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who has proven several times over his ability to handle dramatic action with the best of them.

Then, as the lives of Wilbur, Orville and their sister Katherine unfold, with their successes at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in Europe and back home in Dayton, Ohio, the reader begins to understand that McCullough captured the essence of his characters perfectly.

The old pro doesn’t need to romanticize, to fictionalize, to create the kinds of obligatory moments that TV docudramas live by. He only needs to tell it the way it was, with all its pondering, its rumination and its hesitancy.

To characterize Wilbur and Orville Wright as stubborn, pig-headed, single-minded geniuses is to exercise understatement.

We’re talking about years of 14- to 16-hour days, six days a week, devoted to a single goal, with no fanfare, no acclaim and no financing. Only steely determination. Years later, a well-off Orville would say if they had wanted to make a fortune, they would have chosen a more lucrative endeavor.

The Wright Brothers were mechanics – genius mechanics – but mechanics just the same. They eschewed drama. They flew their machines when they were good and ready, and they didn’t fly when they weren’t, even if the President of the United States had to go home disappointed.

Willbur and Orville, the Dayton bicycle shop owners, did not stand alone at the turn of the century with dreams of piloted power flight. Lighter-than-air balloons, usually tethered, were in the skies of Europe, and men on both sides of the Atlantic were experimenting with every concoction of large kite.

But while others were drawing huge crowds and inviting the press to their stupendous failures, the almost monastic Wrights were building and rebuilding their machine in relative obscurity. And what’s more important, they were learning how to fly it.

Wilbur watched huge seabirds soar on air currents over the Outer Banks of North Carolina by the hour, noting and recording every movement of their wings. At one point, the brothers determined through trial and error that most of the accepted data of the day on flying machines were wrong. So these two tinkerers, who had never darkened the doors of a university classroom, began a systematic rewriting of the rules of aerodynamics.

What they lacked in flamboyance they made up in persistence and perseverance.

In McCullough’s telling, sister Katherine, a schoolteacher, is the most vibrant of the Wrights. At one point, she complains of her obsessive brothers: “We don’t hear anything but flying machines ... from morning till night.”

At another time, she grows so tired of her brothers’ endless arguing over angles of attack and degrees of warp that she threatens in near hysteria: “If you don’t stop arguing, I’ll leave home.”

The brothers completed thousands of manned glides, many of them longer than 300 feet, before they and their bicycle shop assistant, Charlie Taylor, began designing a gasoline engine to power their machine.

And on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, when they made four flights – one lasting 59 seconds and covering nearly half a mile – only a handful of people, plus a still camera, were there to witness the first controlled powered flight of man and machine.

While the brothers were preparing for that historic flight, Prof. Samuel Langley, with the backing of the Smithsonian Institution and $70,000 in public money, endured two spectacular and highly publicized failures on the banks of the Potomac River that “proved” once and for all that man could not fly. Orville estimated the cost of their initial flights, including travel and lodging, at about $1,000.

Over the next five years, the Wrights built new and better machines – while wisely acquiring patents – and perfected flying the contraptions over a field outside of Dayton called Huffman Prairie. They didn’t fly in secret. They were flying their machine next to a busy trolley line. There were some newspaper stories, but the brothers were not ready to claim success until their machine met their rigorous self-imposed standards.

So in 1908, while the French and Italian aerial hotshots in leather flying jackets and goggles were struggling to lift their machines off the ground for a few hundred feet before crashing, the Wright Brothers shipped their latest machine to La Mans, France, and an unlikely Wilbur, in suit and tie, thrilled the world.

Their machine flew controlled circles, figure eights, returned for landing, and at times remained aloft for nearly an hour at a time. Tens of thousands came by train in hopes of witnessing the spectacle. Now the press was there and word was telegraphed throughout the world that the Wright Brothers of Dayton were not bluffers. They had conquered manned flight.

The Wright Brothers gained world celebrity. Wilbur flew before an amazed King Edward VII of England and a speechless King Vittorio Emanuele of Italy. Cheering crowds followed Wilbur, and Katherine was dispatched to Europe to handle bookings and public affairs. It turns out that, unlike her brothers, she knew a little classroom French.

She bought some new clothes for the occasion. Even so, she was described in the international press as “a typical American girl at a homecoming.”

Back in America, within a week of remaining aloft for more than an hour, Orville crashed, killing a high-profile passenger and nearly killing himself. He would recover and fly again.

The Wrights would make a million dollars in a time when a million dollars was a lot of money. But the boys didn’t change much. They still wore dour faces and flew in suits and ties, even if their hands were black from grease.

They would win patent fights in courts, and receive medals from presidents and kings. They would build a new house outside of Dayton with a private bedroom and bath for Wilbur, but Wilbur would die at 45 without ever living in it.

McCullough treats briefly others who would claim to be the first to pilot a flying machine, notably a German-American named Gustav Whitehead of Connecticut whose claim persists to this day. McCullough rejects that claim and others, insisting no credible proof ever has been uncovered to substantiate the claims.

Even in the world of triumph, there is something singularly American Midwest about the Wright Brothers’ story.

While some attacked the big picture of manned flight with eloquent solutions, and others tackled it with little more than daring and hoopla, Orville and Wilbur plugged away in their shop until they did it.

They identified one problem at a time, and through trial and error conquered it. Then they moved on to the next problem and repeated the process. When confronted by science that didn’t work, they rejected it. When they needed a part that didn’t exist, they built it. And usually rebuilt it.

As the United States strode into the 20th Century on an unprecedented wave of invention, many claimed that was the American way. It certainly was the Wright way.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.