The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 368 pages, $36
Reviewed by Dean Jobb
David McCullough’s masterful biography of pioneering aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright begins with a photograph. Not the famous image of their 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina – that one’s on the dust jacket – but with the author’s analysis of a photo taken six years later, as the brothers sat on the back step of their Ohio home.
It depicts Wilbur, older by four years, as distant and dour; meticulous and well-read, he stares past the camera and it’s clear he would rather be inventing something than wasting valuable time posing for a photographer. Orville, the more mechanically minded of the two, appears at ease and ventures a slight smile beneath a bushy moustache.
The portrait serves as a fitting springboard for McCullough’s latest foray into American history, because The Wright Brothers is more about people than flying machines. Engineering and technology take a back seat in this engaging and revealing character study of the bicycle mechanics from Dayton who conquered the air.
McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who has chronicled many of America’s great figures and their achievements, combed through more than a thousand personal letters and other records to recreate how the Wrights succeeded where many would-be fliers failed.
The answer is surprisingly simple. Obsessed with the idea of human flight since childhood, the brothers worked with dogged determination to design and build gliders and, ultimately, the motor-driven prototype that flew at Kitty Hawk.
Neither had a college education or technical training. They learned and perfected through trial and error. If they needed a component – a lightweight gasoline engine or a propeller – they fabricated it themselves in their bicycle shop. When they needed a wind tunnel to test wing designs, they built their own.
And to unlock the secrets of controlled flight, they studied how birds dipped and soared on the wind. “Learning the secret of flight from a bird,” as Orville put it in his homespun way, “was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician.”
They faced no shortage of rivals – and endured plenty of skepticism and ridicule from the press and the scientific community. The naysayers included Nova Scotia-born Simon Newcomb, one of the most respected astronomers of the day, who predicted in 1901 that the first successful aircraft would be capable of carrying “nothing heavier than an insect.”
There’s another Maritime Provinces connection to their story. Among the Wrights’ competitors was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who formed the Aerial Experiment Association to test kites and gliders at his summer home in Cape Breton. One of Bell’s associates, U.S. Army officer Thomas Selfridge, wrangled a seat on a test flight near Washington in 1908 that ended in the only serious accident to befall the safety-conscious Wrights.
A propeller broke and the plane nose-dived into the ground. Orville, the pilot, was badly injured and Selfridge was killed – the first person to die in a plane crash. Orville’s suspicion that his passenger had been on a spy mission was soon borne out – when Bell arrived for Selfridge’s funeral, he personally inspected the wrecked plane and took measurements.
The American government’s initial indifference to the military and commercial potential of powered flight forced the Wrights to show off their early prototypes in Europe. Wilbur’s demonstration flights outside Paris made him an instant celebrity – “Not since Benjamin Franklin had any American been so overwhelmingly popular in France,” McCullough writes – and cemented the brothers’ reputation as aviation leaders.
“We are children compared to the Wrights,” one French pilot declared. Le Figaro called their achievement “a decisive victory for aviation … which will revolutionize scientific circles throughout the world.”
The Wrights’ story has been told many times, but McCullough’s deep research and focus on personalities makes it feel fresh. And he spotlights the contributions of younger sister Katharine, a teacher who kept the bicycle business going in their absence and helped Orville recover from his injuries. She joined her brothers on a tour of Europe and managed their busy social schedule as they hobnobbed with aristocrats.
Despite the acclaim, the Wright brothers remained – pun intended – down to earth. Their innovations and patents made them a fortune, but it was the challenge that mattered, not fame and money.
In June 1909, when the citizens of Dayton organized two days of celebrations to honour their famous sons, the men of the hour were often absent. Whenever there was a break between parades and speeches, it was later discovered, the ever-restless Wrights ducked out so they could tinker in their workshop.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (HarperCollins Canada), the untold story of Chicago’s master swindler, Leo Koretz, and his escapades as a fugitive in 1920s Nova Scotia.