David McCullough is one of the preeminent American historians of our times, the deft biographer of John Adams and Harry Truman, and in this book he brings his wonderful historical exposition and storytelling skills to the lives of the Wright brothers. So much is known about these men that they have been turned into legends. Legends they were but they were also human, and this is the quality that McCullough is best at showcasing in these pages. The book is a quick and fun read. If I have some minor reservations they are only in the lack of technical detail which could have informed descriptions of some of the Wrights' experiments and the slightly hagiographical tint that McCullough is known to bring to his subjects. Nevertheless, this is after all a popular work, and popular history seldom gets better than under McCullough's pen.
The book shines in three aspects. Firstly McCullough who is quite certainly one of the best storytellers among all historians does a great job of giving us the details of the Wrights' upbringing and family. He drives home the importance of the Wrights' emphasis on simplicity, intellectual hunger and plain diligence, hard work and determination. The Wright brothers' father who was a Bishop filled the house with books and learning and never held back their intellectual curiosity. This led to an interest in tinkering in the best sense of the tradition, first with bicycles and then with airplanes. The Wrights' sister Katharine also played an integral part in their lives; they were very close to her and McCullough's account is filled with copious examples of the affectionate, sometimes scolding, always encouraging letters that the siblings wrote to each other. The Wrights' upbringing drives home the importance of family and emotional stability.
Secondly, McCullough also brings us the riveting details of their experiments with powered flight. He takes us from their selection of Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a flight venue through their struggles, both with the weather conditions and with the machinery. He tells us how the brothers were inspired by Otto Lillienthal, a brilliant German glider pilot who crashed to his death and by Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley. Chanute was a first-rate engineer who encouraged their efforts while Samuel Langley headed aviation efforts at the Smithsonian and was a rival. The Wrights' difficult life on the sand dunes - with "demon mosquitoes", 100 degree weather and wind storms - is described vividly. First they experimented with the glider, then consequentially with motors. Their successful and historic flight on December 17, 1903 was a testament to their sheer grit, bon homie and technical brilliance. A new age had dawned.
Lastly, McCullough does a fine job describing how the Wrights rose to world fame after their flight. The oddest part of the story concerns how they almost did not make it because institutions in their own country did not seem to care enough. They found a willing and enthusiastic customer in the French, perhaps the French had already embraced the spirit of aviation through their pioneering efforts in ballooning (in this context, Richard Holmes's book on the topic is definitely worth a read). Wilbur traveled to France, secured funding from individuals and the government and made experimental flights that were greeted with ecstatic acclaim. It was only when his star rose in France that America took him seriously. After that it was easier for him and Orville to secure army contracts and test more advanced designs. Throughout their efforts to get funding, improve their designs and tell the world what they had done, their own determined personalities and the support of their sister and family kept them going. While Wilbur died at the age of forty-five from typhoid fever, Orville lived until after World War 2 to witness the evolution of his revolutionary invention in all its glory and horror.
McCullough's account of the Wright brothers, as warm and fast-paced as it is, was most interesting to me for the lessons it holds for the future. The brothers were world-class amateurs, not professors at Ivy League universities or researchers in giant corporations. A similar attitude was demonstrated by the amateurs who built Silicon Valley, and that's also an attitude that's key to American innovation. The duo's relentless emphasis on trial and error - displayed to an almost fanatical extent by their compatriot Thomas Edison - is also an immortal lesson. But perhaps what the Wright brothers' story exemplifies the most is the importance of simple traits like devotion to family, hard work, intense intellectual curiosity and most importantly, the frontier, can-do attitude that has defined the American dream since its inception. It's not an easy ideal to hold on to, and as we move into the 21st century, we should always remember Wilbur and Orville who lived that ideal better than almost anyone else. David McCullough tells us how they did it.
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