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The Wright Brothers Paperback – May 3, 2016
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“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
“[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
"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
“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
"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
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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.
David McCullough takes their story into a little more detail. He talks of their larger family and history in Ohio. McCullogh's style is easy to read and he covers a lot of ground quickly. Of particular interest are the Wright's struggles to actually fly at Kitty Hawk and how primitive a place that part of North Carolina was at the start of the 20th century. The book then goes onto talk of their successes in Europe. The Wright's seem to have been intense, unusual men. And theirs is a story of dealing with the world as well as of their genius.
This is a popular history which concentrates on the Wrights and their aviation career. McCullough does spend a bit of time talking about Charles Taylor who was the Wright's mechanic and without whom they would not have flown. You can't fly a powered vehicle without an engine after all can you? It also doesn't include a lot of context about their rivals and how or why their company was so unsuccessful. So this is an enjoyable and interesting book which lacks depth and context. If you want to know more about the Wright's then this is a great place to start but a fuller biography/history might have been more fulfilling.
1. an explanation of their discovering the basic errors in atmospheric density at sea level.
2. the setup of the wind tunnels that allowed them to show most aerodynamic data was incorrect.
3. the explanation as they arrived at it of the interaction between roll and yaw and pitch in turning an aircraft.
4. the mathematics involved in the first derivation of how a propeller works.
5. a contrast between the first three and last fourth of the first flights.
The point is these guys did things that are worthy of Noble prizes and risked their lives in the process and succeeded at minimum costs, and the author touches on that well when he describes C. Taylor's feelings he was watching them risk their lives on every flight at Hoffman Prairie, but you can't really appreciate why that is necessary without a deeper grounding in the technical as well as the human side. I am not saying doing an explanation would be easy I am just trying to show how without it the story is simply not grounded in the wondrous accomplishments that make it so wondrous. Their discovery is in every airline flying today and that needs to be shown not simply celebrated.
Again I appreciate the personal side but the hard work of explanation of how and why so important is missing.
Top international reviews
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.
I enjoyed it so very much, it is written with affection and respect appropriate for the Wright Brothers themselves.
The Wright brothers were totally amazing people.
There are many lessons here that urgently need to be remembered about authenticity of endeavor and honesty of character leading to success.
How they were treated by the US establishment is sad.