There they are, pictured in American History books, looking like would-be models for a Grant Wood painting: Orville and Wilbur Wright, two men idolized for their achievement in flight but unknown and unknowable beyond that remarkable fact. These tall, thin men appear in the history of mankind, one of them skimming over a sand dune in a contraption of wood struts and fabric while the other stands alongside. Then they disappear again. Most people can’t tell you which brother is in the flying machine. Until recently, we’ve seen them as aviation’s first pair of ciphers.
By contrast, David McCullough has devoted his life to creating a greater understanding of American individuals and events that shaped this country’s history and his new book, The Wright Brothers goes a long way toward demystifying and humanizing this legendary pair. In many ways, it takes someone like McCullough to point out the history of these remarkable brothers is a quintessential American tale.
Born in the mid-west as the grandchildren of immigrants, Orville and Wilbur had the singular good fortune of having enlightened, loving parents. Their father was a traveling minister who loved learning almost as much as he loved God. Bishop Wright encouraged his children to read widely and develop their own opinions about life. The boys were younger siblings in a brood of children and a bit shy but they probably would have developed unremarkably except two set-backs refocused their lives. First, Wilbur was hit in the mouth with a baseball bat and lost most of his front teeth. Instead of going to college, he spent the next three years in the house recovering, (cosmetic dentistry was in its infancy) caring for his terminally ill mother, and reading every book he could get his hands on. The isolation made a shy man shyer but it also ignited his brain. Then Orville developed an illness that kept him in bed for months and, to pass the time, Wilbur read aloud to him from books on science and nature. By the time they recovered, the brothers were devoted to engineering and science.
McCullough tells their story in plain, good-humored prose that is easy on the eye and ear. Reading The Wright Brothers is almost like listening to the narration of a Ken Burns film. It’s friendly and open, as if the speaker knows he has an intelligent audience with an interest in his reasonable story. Dramatic language doesn’t need to be manufactured to keep the reader turning pages; the events described are enough.
Another gift of McCullough’s research is that he creates the context that make the accomplishments of the Wright brothers understandable. Any story about the Wright Brothers mentions that the brothers originally made their living repairing, building and selling bicycles, a concern that seems fairly distant from controlled flight. McCullough puts this in perspective by pointing out the safety bicycle sold by the Wrights (one with two wheels of similar size an chain drive) was a new phenomena that made self-propelled transport viable. In other words, the Wrights were entrepreneurs interested in cutting-edge technology. By repairing and then creating lightweight, dependable, and fast bicycles, Wilbur and Orville taught themselves elements of mechanical engineering that helped them develop the flight control system they later put into their planes.
Like Edison the Wright brothers were inventors, undismayed by failure, and as unskilled as businessmen as they were gifted in engineering but history is full of people whose focus allowed them to achieve in one area but hindered them in another. If their work is substantial and documented, usually their achievements are remembered and cherished. Thankfully, writers like David McCullough make sure the achievers are remembered as well.