The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 336 pp. $30 (hardcover).

David McCullough begins The Wright Brothers with some history about men who “had dreamed of taking to the sky, of soaring into the blue like the birds.”

One savant in Spain in the year 875 is known to have covered himself with feathers in the attempt. Others devised wings of their own design and jumped from rooftops and towers—some to their deaths—in Constantinople, Nuremberg, Perugia. Learned monks conceived schemes on paper. And starting about 1490, Leonardo da Vinci made the most serious studies. (p. 2)

Of course, none of these men ever flew, but their spirit toward this achievement carried forward, and their dream would be realized by two brothers many years hence.

According to brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, it began for them with a toy from France, a small helicopter brought home by their father, Bishop Milton Wright, a great believer in the educational value of toys. The creation of a French experimenter of the nineteenth century, Alphonse Pénaud, it was little more than a stick with twin propellers and twisted rubber bands, and probably cost 50 cents. “Look here, boys,” said the Bishop, something concealed in his hands. When he let go it flew to the ceiling. They called it the “bat.”

Orville’s first teacher in grade school, Ida Palmer, would remember him at his desk tinkering with bits of wood. Asked what he was up to, he told her he was making a machine of a kind that he and his brother were going to fly someday. (p. 2)

The response was probably not too encouraging. As McCullough relates, flying machines, as well as those who dreamed of making one, were the subject of satire. Nobody was expected to succeed, and anyone who made an attempt was laughed at for even trying. Such was the world into which Wilbur and Orville were born.

Because it was not the world that they left behind, however, many readers will come to the book wondering what enabled these brothers to succeed when so many others did not. McCullough conveys the fascinating answer masterfully.

He briefly relays the life of the brothers up to the time they became determined to fly. For example, he shows how they grew up in a family “where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity” (p. 18). He indicates Orville’s mechanical ingenuity by noting that while in high school he “designed and built his own [printing] press using a discarded tombstone, a buggy spring, and scrap metal” (p. 18). And he notes the flurry of activity that the brothers were always getting involved in.

Some of that activity was largely mechanical—such as making bikes for sale at their bicycle shop and building additions to their house—and some of it was entirely mental—such as reading books on all manner of subjects, from art to evolution. Both brothers read widely. But it was Wilbur who, as an adult, began reading the work of a German gliding enthusiast shortly after news of his death reached America. This, McCullough says, reignited his childhood dream of flying.

Soon, Wilbur read Animal Mechanism, which focused in part on how birds fly. Then he read Animal Locomotion: or Walking, Swimming, and Flying, with a Dissertation on Aeronautics. And then he shared the books with Orville. The brothers “read up on aeronautics as a physician would read his books,” their father said (p. 30). It was not enough information, though. So, McCullough explains, on May 30, 1899, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian, saying:

I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style of Cayley’s and Pénaud’s machines. . . . My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable. . . . I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business. I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language. (p. 32)

After receiving a list of books in return, McCullough says the two brothers began to study in earnest. This included more than just reading books, however. Wilbur thought that achieving human flight was “a question of knowledge and skill in acrobatic feats,” and so he took up bird-watching to carefully observe how they soared through the air. He and Orville built experimental glider kites. They used cardboard boxes to visualize how the wings of a glider could be twisted to present different angles to the wind—just like birds do when they want to bank and turn (p. 38). And then, after building their first full-sized glider, the brothers set off for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The story of what the Wright brothers accomplished there is as well known as the explanations of it are wrong. Their success was not a result of pure daring—of boldly taking to the sky while others dragged their feet. As McCullough says, “caution and close attention to all advance preparations were to be the rule for the brothers. They would take risks when necessary, but they were no daredevils out to perform stunts and they never would be” (p. 48).

The courage exhibited by the brothers was fundamentally intellectual. It was not only the courage to act on their well-considered, observation-based views that human flight could be practicable, but also the courage to see that all the data they had once taken as gospel was wrong, that the esteemed authorities had only been “groping in the dark,” and that if they were ever to fly, they would have to discover the means on their own (p. 64).

Nor was the success of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk a result of pure tinkering. The brothers made adjustments to their glider, for sure. And their resourcefulness in the face of obstacles at Kitty Hawk, as well as back in Dayton, and later in France, is immensely inspiring. But McCullough observes that this tinkering went hand in hand with careful observation and precise recording. In Kitty Hawk, for example, “Wilbur devoted hours to studying [the movements of birds] in the wind, filling pages of his notebook” (p. 51). Then, after returning to Dayton, in order to get data they could act—or, more precisely, fly—on, the brothers set up a wind tunnel in which they could “crack the code of aeronautics themselves” (p. 69).

Of primary importance was to find a way to achieve accurate measurements of the “lift” and “drag” of a wing’s surface, and the ingenuity, as well as patience, they brought to their experiments were like nothing done by anyone until then. For three months, working in one of the upstairs rooms at the bicycle shop, they concentrated nearly all of their time on these “investigations” and with stunning results.

They devised and built a small-scale wind tunnel—a wooden box 6 feet long and 16 inches square, with one end open and a fan mounted at the other end, and this powered, since the shop had no electricity, by an extremely noisy gasoline engine. The box stood on four legs about waist high.

Although a wind tunnel had been used by an English experimenter, Francis Herbert Wenham, as early as the 1870s, and by several others since, including Hiram Maxim, their tests were nothing like those of the brothers, who proceeded entirely on their own and in their own way.

For testing apparatus inside the box, they used old hacksaw blades cut to different sizes with tin shears and hammered into a variety of shapes and thicknesses—some flat, some concave and convex, or square or oblong, and each about six inches square and one-thirty-second of an inch thick—these strung on bicycle spoke wires.

Though such apparatus did not look like much, it was to prove of immense value. For nearly two months the brothers tested some thirty-eight wing surfaces, setting the “balances” or “airfoils”—the different-shaped hacksaw blades—at angles from 0 to 45 degrees in winds up to 27 miles per hour. It was a slow, tedious process, but as Orville wrote, “those metal models told us how to build.” (pp. 69–70)

McCullough shows over and over that what the Wright brothers achieved did not come easily, let alone fast, nor did it all happen with one spontaneous insight in Dayton—or in one cinematic moment at Kitty Hawk. It was the result of persistent effort, over time, by two hard-working, intellectually courageous, immensely resourceful brothers.

Even after solving the problem of flight, Orville and Wilbur persisted in this manner. They still faced huge challenges, and McCullough relays these one after another, detailing everything from how they were able to obtain a motor of the required weight for their plane to how they were able to get credit as well as money for their accomplishment.

This is an amazing, inspiring, deeply satisfying story. The Wright brothers were heroic at every turn. And McCullough writes about them with unabashed admiration. He does not look for faults where there are none, nor does he focus on trivialities and thereby lose the big picture. Rather, he takes one of the most important achievements of the last century and, with masterful simplicity, tells us how two brilliant brothers achieved it.

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