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The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

September 25, 2015

Wright-Brothers-Cover

I am writing this review from my comfy (if slightly cozy) seat on a Boeing 737, an easy flight from Denver to Oakland. I am beaming Thursday Night Football over the wifi to my computer, enjoying the view of a beautiful sunset from 30,000+ feet. It is hard to fathom how far we have come since the Wright Brothers ran their rickety flying machine down the sands of Kitty Hawk, attempting to catch some lift and become, for a few seconds at least, like the birds they had studied so much in their quest to be first in flight.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the idea of manned flight was still met with such skepticism that many intelligent people—scientists even—considered the notion absurd. It’s hard to imagine, but to the 1902 sensibility, it seemed as impossible as time travel does for us.

What is most enjoyable about this book is what great characters the Wright brothers were. From humble means, studious but neither attending college, they were underdogs. And they changed the world forever.

Manned flight, like any innovation, was not their invention alone, though they are often given credit. But at the time, several other aspiring aviators were racing the Wright brothers, most notably Samuel Langley. One could have little improved upon Langley as a narrative counterpoint: an astronomer and physicist, the well-educated Langley was backed by government grants from the War Department and the Smithsonian totaling $70,000. The Wright brothers beat out Langley on a budget of less than $1000.

Aside from the excitement of the race, two other points struck me. The first was the emphasis on the fact that flying was as much a physical achievement as one of design. That is, the Wright brothers were not just the first to design a successful airplane, they were also the first pilots. It took an incredibly skillful hand to, once airborne, actually keep the delicate machine balanced in the air. Landings were treacherous.

The other point of interest was how uninterested the U.S. government was in purchasing the Wright brothers’ patent. The lack of foresight is astounding. Not only did the U.S. government repeatedly express skepticism that the Wrights had achieved flight as they claimed, it was as if nobody in the U.S. government could imagine any practical use for a flying machine. It wasn’t until the Wrights started shopping their invention around to foreign governments that the U.S. took interest.

McCullough is a great storyteller, and this is a great story. It loses steam slightly after the actual achievement of the first flight—gets bogged down in patent litigation and such—but overall this is a delightful book.

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