The Wright Stuff

April 8, 2015

David McCullough, Pulitzer-winning author of Truman, focuses his historical attention on another American icon, or rather pair of them – Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Becky ordered 10 copies to start a few months ago and I’m enthusiastic after The Wright Brothers : Wright Brothersreading a digital arc of this on Edelweiss over the weekend.  [It is easy to request DRC’s and I’ve never been turned down yet].

The Wright Brothers brings the dawn of American aviation to life from news accounts and extensive correspondence.  For me it was full of surprises.  For one, what the Wrights specifically accomplished at Kitty Hawk was the first mechanically powered flight of a machine and person all heavier than the air, taking off and flying for all of 59 seconds and landing at a point at least as high as where it launched.  But this feat went largely unrecognized by the public until 1907 and then only after the brothers demonstrated flights in Le Mans, France.  Partly this was the result of the brothers’ secretiveness. They had reason to be this way – there were many grandiose and publicly funded attempts at powered flight that ended in humiliating failure and cast the whole attempt in a comical light for the skeptical.  Also, they were concerned about patent protection. As it was, Wilbur fought these law suits for years after his own last flight in the early teens.

This book is an amazing account of stolid, self-reliant individuals (apparently refusing all offers of financial help) who achieved their dream after persistent but careful experimentation, even closely studying all species of birds they could find to solve the problems of balance, control, and navigation.  They were also inspired by a lifelong habit of voluminous reading and even researched boat propellers in their local library when designing their air propellers. Even as the recognized inventors of the first successful flying machines, what most impressed people about them was their own broad knowledge and character.

This is a great recommendation for non-fiction readers looking for a new angle and fuller picture of events we think we know about.  I especially think it’s a good follow-up to Bill Bryson’s 1927.





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