The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

wrightThis is a fascinating, readable biography by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

A small flying toy fascinated Wilbur and Orville Wright when they were young children, and Orville told his first grade-school teacher that someday he and his brother would make a real flying machine.  As a young man, Wilbur, in one of the most important letters in history, asked the Smithsonian for a list of books about the problems of mechanical and human flight.  The brothers took the list, studied the books, observed birds in flight, and began building their first plane.  They faced many obstacles – lack of college education, limited technical training, a lack of funding except for money earned in their bicycle shop, errors in the calculations of earlier researchers, and their inability to find an engine or propellers suitable for their project – but they overcame them all.

After their successful flight in 1903, there were new problems – limited government or public interest in their achievement, their lack of experience with complex business negotiations, lawsuits attempting to prove that the Wrights were not the first to invent the airplane, a serious accident – and again, they succeeded.  In 1909, the world’s first international airplane race included twenty-two planes.  Wilbur and Orville’s thorough documentation in diaries, letters, and notebooks eventually proved without a shadow of a doubt that they were the inventors of this world-changing invention.

The brothers’ contemporaries were often as impressed by their ability to avoid being spoiled by success as by their invention.  I liked the following excerpt from a reporter’s summary of their activities on the day when their hometown held an all-day celebration for them.  “9 A.M. Left their work in the aeroplane shop and in their shirt sleeves went out in the street to hear every whistle and bell in town blow and ring for ten minutes.  9:10 A.M. Returned to work.  10 A.M. Drove in a parade to the opening ceremony of the Homecoming Celebration. 11 A. M. Returned to work.”

The story of the Wright brothers has a special interest for North Carolinians.  The brothers chose Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks for their first attempts at flight because of the suitable winds in that area, and it was there that they succeeded.  The book includes a glimpse of life on the North Carolina coast at that time.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

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