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“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 23, 2016

In an interview about his new book, David McCullough opined that Wilbur Wright was “certainly a genius,” and that Orville Wright had “mechanical ingenuity as few people had ever seen.“ Read this book, which I recommend of all McCullough’s books, and you will see that he was right on both counts.

At the turn of the 20th Century, few people thought man would ever be able to fly. In fact, most people were certain we would not. There were hot air balloons, of course (Ben Franklin rode in one in France) and some gliders, but neither was hardly the same thing. (The first and best glider engineer – Otto Lilienthal – died in a crash in his own invention, but left behind some observations about flight that the brothers studied.)

Some few cranks and some serious scientists, most notably Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institute, with large financial backing by the War Department, experimented with manned, powered flight. You’ve seen the old film clips of their odd looking machines launching (or not) and crashing quickly to the ground. Some of those were Langley’s efforts.

The Wright brothers – brilliant, though without formal training or even a college degree – approached the problem differently. First, they began with the absolute certainty that flight was possible and the determination to be the first to do it. Second, they approached the task patiently and scientifically, in sequential steps, from research, to designs; to gliders, to manned gliders, to power source, to Voila.

Wilbur’s first, and perhaps most brilliant insight came early on. He perceived, as no others had, after watching birds soar in flight, that the more important aspect of flight was the flyer, not the machine. As a baby bird must learn to fly by practice, starting with merely flapping its wings on the edge of the nest, so the flyer must gain experience on the controls of the plane and how it reacts to changes in the air currents to the point of reflex. Thus, the patient, sequential development of their invention and its flying.

The brothers did their design and construction at their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, but they wanted privacy (read secrecy) for their testing. They chose Kitty Hawk, on the outer banks of North Carolina for its seclusion and favorable winds, of which they got both in spades. (The Wrights actually went to Kitty Hawk in four successive years to further their project sequentially. Before their first flight on December 17, 1903, the brothers made over a thousand glides from atop Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, to become true, experienced pilots.)

Having achieved true flight – heavier than air, controlled, power driven, with a pilot – in the isolation of Kitty Hawk, with only a few locals and their own still camera to witness, the word of their achievement got out slowly, and with more skepticism than they expected. The brothers returned to Dayton and put one some exhibitions, and the news began to circulate more broadly.

There were still more skeptics and doubters than fans. The War Department, having sunk a lot of money into Langley’s spectacular, public failures, had no interest in the Wright’s claims or their machine. The two small town boys had to go to Europe for recognition (Wilbur stayed in Paris for more than a year on his first trip, yet never learned French. His sister visited him and in four months became his interpreter. Remarkable family.) In France, England and Germany, the news got the adulation it deserved.

The Wright brothers spent the next several years building better and better machines, and flying higher and faster and farther and longer, setting new world records nearly every time they flew. The possibility of manned flight having been proven, others joined in the pursuit, and progress was made quickly. In less than a quarter of a century, aviation progressed from the first short flight in Kitty Hawk to Charles Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927. (Lindberg was born the year before Kitty Hawk.)

The Wright brothers other pursuit – falling mostly on the shoulders of Wilbur – was filing and fighting lawsuits to protect their patents. Wilbur wasn’t interested in the money, but both brothers wanted it undoubted that they had been the first to fly. They won all the suits, and their recognition is undisputed. But the effort wore Wilbur down as flying never had. “It is always easier to deal with things than with men,” he wrote.  The effort destroyed Wilbur’s health. He died in his mid-40s. Orville succeeded him by 37 years.

The story of this most remarkable achievement makes great reading in McCullough’s hands. It’s a must read story of the dawn of aviation. But the most astounding factoid in it to me is that Wilbur – the genius visionary and creator of manned, powered, piloted flight – did not think that the automobile would ever become practical. Too noisy and unreliable, he thought. Orville, on the other hand, loved motor cars, and after Wilbur’s death, and when he could no longer fly, due to a bad crash, drove them all over Dayton at high speeds. The local police cringed and looked the other way.

 

 

2 Responses

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  1. George Brose said, on October 4, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Having grown up in Dayton, I also enjoyed this book. Their shadow was over us in many ways. Orville did a lot for the city over the years. The lads worked hard to protect their patents and were a peculiar pair. Very tight family and resented Sister Katherine’s marriage plans and moving out of the house. She was their caregiver most of their early adult lives. Today they might have been labelled somewhere on the autistic spectrum. How times do change. Spent some time at the Wright State University library this past Spring doing research on another subject and was amazed to see the brothers’ many trophies and awards on display in the special collections section of the library. Also a great museum in town ‘Carillon Park’ with much of the history of dayton inventors and manufacturers very well presented. If you’re ever wondering when driving through the state, what in god’s name there is to do there, it’s a good place for a day visit.

    • EloiSVM42 said, on October 5, 2016 at 6:31 pm

      Thanks for these notes about Dayton and the Wright brothers, George. Very helpful. I doubt either was anywhere on the autism scale, though.


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