By Heidi Simmons


The Wright Brothers

by David McCullough



Before the 1900s, it was thought that flight for human beings was impossible.  People had tried and died.  A common saying: “If God wanted people to fly, he would have given them wings.”

We don’t have wings, but we do indeed fly.  I choose not to think about how 75 to 450 tons (Boeing 737 and 747) of steel can take off and fly through the sky.  It’s insane and might as well be magic.  In David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages), the magic of flight comes to fruition when one family soars into history and changes the world forever.

As boys, Wilbur and Orville Wright liked mechanical things.  Their father, Milton Wright, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, would bring back toys from his trips around the country.  The boys would modify and improve them.

The brothers, and Katherine, their little sister, grew up in a house where they were encouraged to read from the family’s extensive library.  Their father would let them stay home from school as long as they were engaged in a good book.  Their intellectual curiosity was always stimulated and the bishop preached courage and good character to all his children.

A terrific student and athlete, it was thought Wilbur would go to Yale when he finished high school.  But after having his teeth knocked out in a hockey game, he became depressed and lacked ambition.   Then their mother died.

Orville dropped out of high school and started a printing business.  After some success he noticed that the bicycle was becoming popular so he started a bike shop.  Wilbur joined him and together they soon began designing and building bicycles, which quickly became a success.

In the late 1890s, there were several attempts –- albeit unsuccessful — at flight and the brothers’ curiosity was piqued.  Bored with the bike business, Wilbur turned to aeronautics, reading everything he could on the subject.   He observed the birds and saw how they moved their wings against the wind.  Together, Wilbur and Orville started with the basics: A glider.

With their bike business dong well, the brothers left Dayton, Ohio, for the closest, windiest place — Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  There they flew glider flight after flight after flight, making improvements at every run.  It was not purely about the flying machine, but how one could control it.

From 1900 to 1903, the brothers had spent $1,000 on their flying machine, whereas scientist Samuel Langley had spent $70,000 on his failed contraption –$50,000 of that was government money and the rest was from investors.  The brothers never took money, nor did they criticize other aeronautical efforts.

In 1902, they fully mastered gliding.  By the next year, they designed and built an aluminum engine to add to their plane.  With patience and perseverance, one small step at a time, the brothers eventually built Flyer III that could be flown with the pilot sitting up and could take a passenger.

While the United States was not interested in their plane, France was.  In 1908 Wilbur set records for the longest manned flight — he flew over two hours and 77 miles — and was acclaimed a hero!

Katherine and Orville joined Wilbur in Europe and were treated like royalty.  They hobnobbed with kings and showed off their plane.  With contracts and prize money, they had $200,000 in a European bank.  Wherever they went, thousands of people showed up to see the brothers fly.

Katharine was the first woman to fly as a passenger in a motorized airplane.  The only Wright with a college education, she was a confidante and a manager for her brothers.  The bishop and children all lived together in the family home and cherished their time together.

After the US saw Orville fly at Fort Myers above one hundred feet and at 40 mph, they were quick to come on board and embrace the Wright brothers as American heroes.   Invited to fly the Hudson River celebration, Wilbur buzzed the Statue of Liberty with over a half million people watching and cheering.

McCullough’s book is an intimate story of noble gentlemen and a wonderful family.  The Wright brothers, their father and sister are beautiful examples of American ingenuity and perseverance.  Together they formed a strong team of support and encouragement.  Failure was an opportunity to learn something new and they never gave up.

At one point, the brothers realized the only answers they sought for flight would have to come from their own trials and inventions since the information in books was often wrong.  The authors just didn’t know because none had actually flown.

The family was not driven by money, but by integrity.  It was about a flying machine that was safe.  The brothers never flew together so that if something happened to one, the other could continue the work.  Their plane had to fly well enough that Wilbur and Orville could train new pilots, which they did successfully.

Author McCullough does a great job describing the family dynamics.  I especially liked life at Kitty Hawk.  I loved the time spent on this remote spit of land and the interesting community that resided there year-round.  The brothers were underdogs and were often ridiculed, but it only made them more determined to fly.

This time period in world history is so fascinating.  It is the calm before the storm.  The Wright brothers had a lot to do with the changes that happened so quickly in the early part of the 20th century.  Aeronautics literally took off after the brothers showed the world flight was possible.   Indeed, life without airplanes would make a very different world.

Wilbur died in 1912 of illness and Orville lived until 1948.  I enjoyed getting to know the Wright family and their incredible contribution to mankind.