A lot of books about the Wright brothers are written for children. Maybe that’s because these two aviation pioneers are better known for their work than for anything personal, and because inventing the first viable airplane is more exciting than anything else about them. Or because the Wrights’ asceticism and single-mindedness sound so uncomplicatedly heroic.
It must also have helped that these solemn-looking loners from Dayton, Ohio, triumphed over the perception that they were merely bonkers. “We couldn’t help thinking they were just a pair of poor nuts,” a resident of the area near Kitty Hawk, N.C., would recall about seeing Wilbur and Orville Wright stand for hours watching giant seabirds as they soared over the beach. The Wrights would flap along, using their own wrists and elbows to learn the motion of the birds’ wings.
The Wrights have been a welcome inspiration to David McCullough, whose last big book, “The Greater Journey” (2011), was about assorted, unrelated Americans venturing to Paris in pursuit of culture and badly needed a better raison d’être.
Merely by choosing them, McCullough makes his subjects extra-estimable. And in the case of the Wrights that may be fitting.
If Wilbur, the older, bossier and more rigorous brother, ever had an impassioned relationship with any human being who was not a blood relative or fellow aviation enthusiast, this isn’t the book to exhume it. McCullough appreciates Wilbur’s aloofness, intelligence and austerity, even after he became a celebrity.
The brothers, five years apart, grew up to do everything together. Though Wilbur was much more dominant — he wrote better and seemed a natural leader — he and Orville were careful to share whatever opportunities came their way. After the 18-year-old Wilbur was hit with a hockey stick (by a 15-year-old future murderer) and suffered debilitating facial injuries, he gave up on the idea of leaving Dayton for a higher education. Instead, he lived out his teens as a recluse and reader.
Then he and Orville developed a love of bicycles, learned to make them and started their own business. It’s interesting to read how Dayton’s alarmists of the 1890s saw the bicycle as something that could corrupt innocent youth, cause children to stray far from home, keep them from reading books, encourage sexual freedom and so on.
This concise, exciting and fact-packed book sees the easy segue between bicycling and aerial locomotion. The Wrights read everything they could about flight and wrote to anyone who might reply, from the first experimenters to the Smithsonian Institution. Relying on their imaginations, inexpensive materials, bicycle-related ideas about steering and modest sums they earned at the shop, they would ultimately embarrass the Smithsonian and its grandiose, government-funded flying experiments that were conducted on (and generally flopped right back into) the Potomac.
The setting for their own experiments had been carefully chosen. Without having seen Kitty Hawk, part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Wrights learned that its steady, moderate winds and its expansive soft beach were ideal for testing gliders and then modified versions with motors. The beauty of that first Kitty Hawk flight in 1903 was the solitude on a windswept beach in which Wilbur, flying against the wind and staying aloft in spite of it, changed the course of history.
Wilbur soon found himself demonstrating air feats for kings, while Orville, having crashed a plane in a demonstration flight outside Washington, was out of commission for a while. (Orville would become more famous later on.)
McCullough presents all this with dignified panache, and with detail so granular you may wonder how it was all collected. He explains: with his own substantial library research, the help of an assistant who did much necessary traveling, a translator, the good people of Kitty Hawk, a huge amount of Wright family data and even a Royal typewriter specialist to keep his instrument in working order. The Wrights loved recording that kind of information. Why shouldn’t he?
McCullough will speak at Central Library June 19. Visit kclibrary.org for details.
Janet Maslin, New York Times
“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough (320 pages; Simon & Schuster; $30)