Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Wright Brothers by David McCollough

Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright rose to fame at the beginning of the 20th Century by building the first successful manned, powered flying machine. In popular culture, they tend to be presented as geniuses who went out to Kitty Hawk and started flying one day. In his biography of these men, The Wright Brothers, David McCollough does not dispel the notion of genius, but he focuses on their courage, determination, careful study, methodical approach, and persistence in the pursuit of something they believed could be.

As boys, the brothers were inspired by a toy to consider the possibility of flight. As grown men, they made a careful study of it. Before beginning their experiments, they gathered the available information, including contacts with earlier experimenters in flight such as Octave Chanute and Samuel Pierpont Langley (the director of the Smithsonian Institute who’s “aerodrome” was a failed early flyer). When they began conducting their own experiments with kites (and later using a small wind tunnel they made), they found the published data to be lacking in useful or correct information.

Therefore, it was mainly on their own that the brothers invented their flyers and the means of piloting them. They had the practical view that inventing a flying machine included inventing the method for controlling it in flight.

An interesting note is that the Wrights funded their experiments and first airplanes with their own money. Their bicycle shop must have produced a decent income, but they lived modestly. They lived in a modest home together with their father and sister until after they completed built three working airplanes, the third model being the one they demonstrated publicly. Even after they began to make money making airplanes and decided to build a new, larger house, they shared it. Wilbur’s only request for the new house was that he have his own bedroom and bathroom.

McCollough emphasizes how much the success of Wilbur and Orville was a family affair. They were close to their widowed father, who survived Wilbur by two years. Once they began to demonstrate their airplane and make a build a business on it, their sister Katherine became a social manager for them, and she share a house with Orville until she married at the age of 52 (she passed away three year later). Orville had a long life and saw many improvements in aviation after he sold the company, including Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight and the use of bombers in World War II.

The book is fairly brief. McCollough concentrates on the period when the Wrights were most involved in experimenting with, building, and ultimately demonstrating their invention. Even so, one gets a sense of what the brothers and their immediate family and friends were like.

David McCollough also wrote The Great Bridge

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.