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The Wright Brothers Hardcover – May 5, 2015
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Two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize David McCullough tells the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly: Wilbur and Orville Wright.
On a winter day in 1903, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two unknown brothers from Ohio changed history. But it would take the world some time to believe what had happened: the age of flight had begun, with the first heavier-than-air, powered machine carrying a pilot.
Who were these men and how was it that they achieved what they did?
David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, tells the surprising, profoundly American story of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Far more than a couple of unschooled Dayton bicycle mechanics who happened to hit on success, they were men of exceptional courage and determination, and of far-ranging intellectual interests and ceaseless curiosity, much of which they attributed to their upbringing. The house they lived in had no electricity or indoor plumbing, but there were books aplenty, supplied mainly by their preacher father, and they never stopped reading.
When they worked together, no problem seemed to be insurmountable. Wilbur was unquestionably a genius. Orville had such mechanical ingenuity as few had ever seen. That they had no more than a public high school education, little money and no contacts in high places, never stopped them in their “mission” to take to the air. Nothing did, not even the self-evident reality that every time they took off in one of their contrivances, they risked being killed.
In this thrilling book, master historian David McCullough draws on the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including private diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence to tell the human side of the Wright Brothers’ story, including the little-known contributions of their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them.
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An Amazon Best Book of May 2015: Most people recognize the famous black-and-white photo of the Wright brothers on a winter day in 1903, in a remote spot called Kitty Hawk, when they secured their place in history as the first to fly a motor-powered airplane. That brilliant moment is the cornerstone of the new masterful book by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, who brings his deft touch with language and his eye for humanizing details to the unusually close relationship between a pair of brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who changed aviation history. Bicycle shop owners by day, Wilbur and Orville taught themselves flight theory through correspondence with the Smithsonian and other experts. But the brothers soon realized that theory was no match for practical testing, and they repeatedly risked life and limb in pursuit of their goal—including when Orville fractured a leg and four ribs in a 75-foot plunge to the ground. McCullough’s narration of ventures such as this—their famous first flight at Kitty Hawk; the flight in Le Mans, France that propelled the brothers to international fame; the protracted patent battles back at home; and the early death of elder brother Wilbur—will immerse readers in the lives of the Wright family. Like other great biographies before it, The Wright Brothers tells the story about the individuals behind the great moments in history, while never sacrificing beauty in language and reverence in tone. – Manfred Collado
“David McCullough has etched a brisk, admiring portrait of the modest, hardworking Ohioans who designed an airplane in their bicycle shop and solved the mystery of flight on the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C. He captures the marvel of what the Wrights accomplished and, just as important, the wonder felt by their contemporaries. . . . Mr. McCullough is in his element writing about seemingly ordinary folk steeped in the cardinal American virtues—self-reliance and can-do resourcefulness.” -- Roger Lowenstein ― The Wall Street Journal
“The nitty-gritty of exactly how [the Wrights] succeeded is told in fascinating detail.” -- Buzzy Jackson ― The Boston Globe
“Few historians have captured the essence of America — its rise from an agrarian nation to the world's dominant power — like David McCullough. . . . McCullough has defined American icons and revealed new dimensions to stories that long seemed exhausted. . . . An elegant, sweeping look at the two Americans who went where no others had gone before and whose work helped create a national excellence in aviation that continues today." -- Ray Locker ― USA Today
"McCullough’s magical account of [the Wright Brothers'] early adventures — enhanced by volumes of family correspondence, written records, and his own deep understanding of the country and the era — shows as never before how two Ohio boys from a remarkable family taught the world to fly." -- Reeve Lindbergh ― The Washington Post
“[McCullough] takes the Wrights’ story aloft. . . . Concise, exciting, and fact-packed. . . . Mr. McCullough presents all this with dignified panache, and with detail so granular you may wonder how it was all collected.” -- Janet Maslin ― The New York Times
“David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is a story about two brothers and one incredible moment in American history. But it’s also a story that resonates with anyone who believes deeply in the power of technology to change lives – and the resistance some have to new innovations.” -- Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google
"McCullough vividly re-creates the failures and disappointments as the Wright brothers puzzle out the scienceof bird- and insect-wing design. . . . [McCullough] continues to deliverhigh-quality material with familiar facility and grace." -- Larry Lebowitz ― The Miami Herald
"An outstanding saga of the lives of two men who left such a giant footprint on our modern age." ― Booklist (starred review)
“[An] enjoyable, fast-paced tale. . . . A fun, fast ride.” ― The Economist
"[A] fluently rendered, skillfully focused study. . . . An educational and inspiring biography of seminal American innovators." ― Kirkus Reviews
"McCullough's usual warm, evocative prose makes for an absorbing narrative; he conveys both the drama of the birth of flight and the homespun genius of America's golden age of innovation." ― Publishers Weekly
“We all know what they did and where they did it — Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But McCullough digs deeply to find out how they did it, and why they did it, and what happened to them in the years that followed.” -- Harry Levins ― The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"A compelling, upbeat story that underscores the importance of industriousness, creative intelligence and indomitable patience.” -- Doug Childers ― Richmond Times-Dispatch
"Pleasurable to read. . . . McCullough has a gift for finding the best in his subjects without losing perspective on their flaws." -- Margaret Quamme ― The Columbus Dispatch
“A master storyteller. . . . The brothers’ story unfolds and develops with grace and insight in a style at which McCullough is simply the best.” -- David Henricks ― The San Antonio Express-News
- Publisher : Simon & Schuster; Later prt. edition (May 5, 2015)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1476728747
- ISBN-13 : 978-1476728742
- Item Weight : 1.55 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.25 x 1.3 x 9.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #26,891 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #10 in Aviation History (Books)
- #19 in History of Technology
- #82 in Scientist Biographies
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In THE WRIGHT BROTHERS, once again McCullough projects little known individuals into the pantheon of American heroes. We have all heard and admired the Wright brothers without knowing much about them, assuming that their flying the first engine-propelled plane was recognized as an extraordinary accomplishment then and now. How surprising to learn that the first detailed account of their 1903 Kitty Hawk flight appeared in the January, 1905 edition of GLEANINGS IN BEE CULTURE.
At first glance, Wilbur and Orville seem unlikely heroes. Life-long bachelors, they lived with their father and younger sister in Dayton, Ohio. The brothers were, like Truman, voracious readers, though void of 'higher education.' They were hard working, curious tinkerers.
Early on Wilbur acknowledged that he didn't have the aggressiveness required in business.
Drawing on thousands of Wright letters and a panoply of other documents, McCullough describes how these two seemingly undistinguished brothers became the Fathers of Flight. They initially made a modest living as job printers before becoming caught up in the bicycle craze. Soon they were selling and then making bicycles at the somewhat expanded Wright Cycle Company.
Wilbur became intrigued, after the death of a German glider pilot, by how gliders related to the flight of birds. He and then Orville developed a passion for 'bird flight' and 'read up on aeronautics as a physician would read his books.' This culminated in a May 30, 1899 letter to The Smithsonian Institution stating that they were "convinced that human flight is possible and practical." Flight became their passion, despite no formal technical training, nor experience working with others, nor financial backing, except for what they earned from their bicycle company.
Working diligently during hours not consumed by their bike business, they built a full-sized glider with components costing less than $15. They selected remote Kitty Hawk as the best site to test this glider. It flew, then crashed, and then flew again. Birds were their Baedeker to flight. As Orville expressed it: "Learning the secret of flight from a bird was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician."
For several years, at Kitty Hawk and Dayton, they tinkered with enhancing their glider, while living on their bicycle business revenue. They related their study of birds to determining the appropriate wing curvature. This required them to build a wind tunnel where they tested 38 wing surfaces. Years later an AERONAUTICAL JOURNAL article stated that "Never in the history of the world had men studied the problem with such scientific skill nor with such undaunted courage."
At times their flying passion was interrupted by the necessity of making more bikes. In 1902, after nearly 1,000 glider flights, 'they only had to build a motor.' Charlie Taylor, their bike mechanic, built a motor with an aluminum block in which he crafted the cylinders and cast iron pistons. The brothers worked out the pitch for their clockwise and counterclockwise propellers. On March 23, 1903, they applied to the U. S. Patent Office for a patent on their flying machine.
In the fall of 1903 they tested their flying machine, "Flyer," at Kitty Hawk. Crashes required new designs before, on December 17th, Orville flew 120 feet in 12 seconds. After Wilbur bested these records, a gust of wind destroyed Flyer, which was then stored in Dayton, never to fly again. The brothers' total 1900-1903 cost for travel and materials was less than $1,000, financed by their bike business.
Their historic flights were a media nonevent. Newsmen seemed highly skeptical that such a flight had occurred. A notification to the War Department went unanswered. The brothers kept tinkering to enhance their flying machine with a better motor, wings, and operating devices. Their flights and occasional crashes attracted no media attention. The first accurate account appeared in the January, 1905 edition of GLEANINGS IN BEE CULTURES. A copy of this article sent to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN was ignored. A year later SA published "The Wright Aeroplane and the Fabled Performances," which was undisguised skepticism.
The Wrights kept flying at Huffman Prairie near Dayton. Some British officers stopped by to observe. Wilbur was again stiffed by the War Department and chose not to prursue the matter. 1905 was a breakthrough year with Flyer III. Finally the brothers' accomplishments received growing attention domestically and abroad. The French sought to sign a significant flying machine contract. On April 7, 1906, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN published a laudatory article, "The Wright Aeroplane and Its Performances."On May 22, 1906, the patent for the Wright Flying Machine was approved.
In 1906 Wilbur went to Europe to discuss contracts with the French and others. Flyer III was shipped over, but never uncrated. Orville, sister Katharine, and mechanic Charlie Taylor joined him for what seemed like a European fling for this Dayton foursome. Wilber demonstrated an uncommon knowledge of art and architecture and visited the Louvre sixteen time. The business discussions seemed unresolved. As Wilbur returned to the U. S., he expressed the intention to "getting more machines ready for the spring trade."
After not having flown for 2 1/2 years, Wilbur and Orville had a busy 1908 flying program. Reporters swarmed to observe the U. S. and European flights. Some of the flights related to a War Department interest in a $25,000 contract and serious French interest. The new Flyer was modified to accommodate two operators. Despite setbacks (the Flyer III, still crated in France, was crushed and Wilbur had to meticulously rebuild it), Wilbur captivated Europe with his spectacular flights. Various foreign governments were interested in contracts. Kings and queens, as well as J. P. Morgan and other dignitaries, flocked to his exhibitions.
Wilbur trained three French aviators, received gold medals, and was lauded by the French minister of public works: "Mr. Wright is a man who has never been discouraged even in the face of hesitation and suspicion. The brothers Wright have written their names in human history as inventors of pronounced genius." Orville was setting world records at Fort Myer. His triumphs were marred by a crash in which the passenger was killed and Orville was badly injured. Towards the end of the year. there were big receptions for the Wright brothers in New York and in Dayton.
While constructing a new plane for the Fort Myers trials, the brothers went to Washington for a day to receive a medal from President Taft on June 10, 1909, before rushing back to Dayton. The Wright brothers continued to establish spectacular flying records. The Wright Company business improved with a $35,000 War Department contract and far more from the French.
The Wright brothers had sparked massive competition domestically and abroad. The French had fifteen factories building planes, while Glenn Curtiss had established the rival Curtiss Company to construct flying machines. The brothers seemed less concerned about competition than by patent infringement. They filed nine patent suits and pursued them with a vengeance. As McCullough described it: "It was their reputation at stake that mattered most." Eventually they won every case in the American courts.
Wilbur last flew in June, 1911. His focus was on Wright Company business and the patent suits. He died on May 30, 1912 at age 45. Orville ceased flying in 1918, sold the Wright Company, and established the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory, where he intended to continue his tinkering. Various museums were established to honor the Wright brothers' accomplishments. Charles Lindbergh came to Dayton in 1927 to pay his respects to Orville.Orville died on January 30, 1948 at age 77. Neil Armstrong took a small swatch of muslin from the wing of the 1903 Flyer to the moon.
These two Dayton boys, through their passion, grit, extraordinary creative thinking, and uncommon tinkering, created modern-day flying. It took years for their accomplishments to be recognized. I wonder what might have occurred, if they had been driven by the business aggressiveness that Wilbur earlier had rejected. According to one source, there was not a single American-made combat plane that fought in World War 1. My father, in the Aviation Section of the U. S. Signal Corps, was one of the pilots who flew hand-me-down French SPADs. His diary recorded many training crashes. A severe crash invalided him out of WW1. After serving with the Eighth Air Force in World War 11, he was transferred to Wright Airfield in Dayton.
McCullough makes it clear that the Wilbur and Orville were a product of their family environment. Their father was the major influence. Milton Wright was a minister and finally a bishop in the United Brethren Church in Christ.
McCullough writes — “He was an unyielding abstainer, which was rare on the frontier, a man of rectitude and purpose— all of which could have served as a description of Milton himself and Wilbur and Orville as well.”
His strict values molded and focused the views of the three younger Wrights (Katherine, Wilbur, and Orville). In addition to his strictness, he was a true classical liberal in his beliefs in the scientific method and equal rights for all people, no matter their race or gender. For example, Milton wrote to his sons when they were in Paris trying to get support for their flying machine: “Sons—Be men of the highest types personally, mentally, morally, and spiritually. Be clean, temperate, sober minded, and great souled.” As grown, experienced, and highly successful inventors, they responded: “Father — All the wine I have tasted since leaving home would not fill a single wine glass. I am sure that Orville and myself will do nothing that will disgrace the training we received from you and Mother.”
McCullough writes — “Years later, a friend told Orville that he and his brother would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantages could advance in the world. ‘But it isn’t true,’ Orville responded emphatically, ‘to say we had no special advantages . . . the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.’ ”
McCullough records Wilbur’s thoughts on being in business in a letter to his brother Lorin in 1894:
“In business it is the aggressive man, who continually has his eye on his own interest, who succeeds. … There is nothing reprehensible in an aggressive disposition, so long as it is not carried to excess, for such men make the world and its affairs move. . . . I entirely agree that the boys of the Wright family are all lacking in determination and push. That is the very reason that none of us have been or will be more than ordinary businessmen. … We ought not to have been businessmen.”
In 1911, Wilbur wrote:
“When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time [fighting patent infringement suits] to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.”
The Wrights never built, or even tried to build, an industrial empire as Ford or Edison or their Dayton neighbors John and Frank Patterson (National Cash Register) had done. The Wrights were intellectual men and women.
McCullough's book is quite light on technical discussions. But the Wrights' unique approach to technology development is the essence of who they were and why they were such successful engineers when others better funded, better educated, and better connected failed. For example, McCullough ignored the following examples.
Wilbur and Orville were superb engineers, though neither went beyond high school. They found by trial and error that the existing data held by the science of aeronautics was flawed even though its principles were generally correct. They zeroed in on weight, power, control, lift, and the propeller as the main technologies that had to be solved. What is so astounding is not just that they solved these technical problems and reduced them to practice, but that they did it in record time. In a matter of three years, they invented or reinvented virtually the whole field of aeronautics. For example, the wind tunnel had been invented thirty years before, but Wilbur and Orville developed it into a precise quantitative instrument. With it, they developed not just the wing configurations, but coupled with the understanding that a propeller is simply a wing on a rotating shaft, they rewrote the rules of propeller design and optimized its efficiency dramatically. These two men had an insight into, and a reverence for, quantitative empirical data that was unique in aeronautical engineering at that time.
McCullough shows how that reverence for truth (data) grew out of their family standards. But there was more to it than the principles of a strict Protestant upbringing. It also has to do with time and place. The late 1800s and early 1900s was a period of great minds applying the rules of The Enlightenment and the experience of science to practical problems. The place was an industrial axis, which was anchored by Dayton and Detroit and included Flint, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and many other cities in the Midwest. This is where Edison, Ford, Dow, Firestone, the Patterson Brothers, and the Wright Brothers lived and created their technologies. There was a culture of boundless innovation and an infrastructure that included materials and support equipment that fostered great invention. It was similar in many ways to Silicon Valley today.
REINFORCE THE NARRATIVE
Another area that could be strengthened in the book is its niche. There has been so much written about the Wrights that each new book needs to distinguish itself in some way with a different point of view, a new set of facts, or a fresh interpretation of old facts.
For example, McCullough writes — “In early 1889, while still in high school, Orville started his own print shop in the carriage shed behind the house, and apparently with no objections from the Bishop. Interested in printing for some while, Orville had worked for two summers as an apprentice at a local print shop. He designed and built his own press using a discarded tombstone, a buggy spring, and scrap metal.”
That last sentence about building his own printing press defines so much about Orville and his simple pragmatism. To reinforce that point requires some expansion of that event or similar other defining events in the lives of Wilbur and Orville. I wanted to read more about Orville's compulsive act of invention, but it wasn't there.
The 81 photos McCullough includes in his book are treasures. Many of them are familiar, but so many are new looks at the Wrights. I wish there were greatly expanded captions below each photo, for each one is a story in itself.
One source of knowledge about the Wrights’ approach to aeronautics is the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. It is normally overshadowed by the more popular Air and Space Museum in Washington, but the exhibits at the Air Force Museum walk you through the Wrights’ engineering exploits with a degree of detail and insight I have found nowhere else.
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Two things surprised me, though. One was the anti-semitism that their sister expressed when hearing of Hart Berg, the reprentative of Flint and Company, who would eventually reprensent them, and two, was their fates in the end. Somehow both these elements seemed out of character. The Wright Brothers, themselves, were peculiar, however. It seems neither ever had as much as a girlfriend, at least from the story McCullough tells, and one has to wonder why that was. They lived at home their entire lives, along with their sister, who likewise seems to have avoided the opposite sex for most of her life. McCullough doesn't dwell on this, but it does seem a bit strange. But I suppose genius is often found in madness.
But it's a truly fascinating, incredibly American tale, and well worth a read.