Life of the Mind

The Wright Brothers

David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, 2015. 262 pages. $30.00.

By Jay M. Pasachoff

I was enthralled by this wonderful book from my first minutes with it. Even the front-inside-cover photo of Orville and Wilbur with their Flyer (which is now in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum) and the statement in the Prologue that Orville told Ida Palmer (corroborative detail that, to quote W. S. Gilbert, adds artistic verisimilitude), “his first teacher in grade school,” that “he was making a machine of a kind that he and his brother were going to fly someday.” And they did!

That the Wrights were the first to fly—with a motor and a person aboard—is standard knowledge at least in the United States, but I was amazed at how little I knew of the details of their amazing story. The Wright Brothers (at least Orville and Wilbur, the two younger of the four) weren’t mere bicycle mechanics and tinkers. In clear and fascinating prose, David McCullough (already winner of Pulitzer prizes and even—as the back-cover photo’s caption states—the Presidential Medal of Freedom) shows how Orville and Wilbur Wright set out methodically to learn from the birds, to set up a series of experiments and tests, and even to build a wind tunnel in their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle emporium (whose proceeds supported the whole research enterprise).

When I read that the former postmaster at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, answered Wilbur’s letter of inquiry, vouched for the wind there, described the stretch of sand, and offered “a hospitable people when you come among us,” tears came to my eyes with the familiar name, now site of one of many monuments to the Wrights. “Kitty Hawk it would be.”

By the end of the book, we have learned, too, of the support the brothers got from their sister, Katharine, who had become “the only woman in the world who had made three flights in an airplane.”

The conditions in Kitty Hawk were as Spartan as could be, especially given the months they spent there in each of three years, but the brothers were resourceful and almost monomaniacally dedicated to their tasks. By the end, they had convinced not only the citizens of Dayton, who earlier “couldn’t help thinking they were just a pair of poor nuts” who would “stand on the beach for hours at a time just looking at the gulls flying, soaring, dipping,” but also their French competitors.

The brothers pointed out that experimentation was needed. McCullough writes, “What if a bicycle rider tried to ride through a crowded city after only five hours’ practice, spread out in bits of ten seconds over a period of five years?” I am reminded of the parallel of this justification to that for astronomers to observe all the total solar eclipses, especially in view of the first such to cross the continental United States in 99 years that is coming on August 21, 2017.

I hadn’t realized that Wilbur spent more than a year in France trying to make commercial arrangements once they had flown, not only in Kitty Hawk but then further in a place near Dayton I hadn’t heard of: Huffman Prairie. We learn of the importance of the proof before the world that their claims of flying at Kitty Hawk and Huffman Prairie weren’t bluffs. By 1908, after a series of demonstrations in France, “’Not one of the former detractors of the Wrights dare question today the previous experiments of the men who were truly the first to fly,’ announced the greatly respected publication L’Aérophile.”

I hadn’t realized the seriousness of Orville’s crash at Fort Myers near Washington, DC, and the length of his convalescence under conditions that probably later contributed to his early death from typhoid. The website of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum describes something of the peregrinations of the original Wright Flyer after it crashed at the end of their test series at Kitty Hawk in December of 1903 and how it was repaired and reconstructed—though kept from the Smithsonian for decades following the attempts of Langley, the influential head of the Smithsonian, to beat them out as first to fly, attempts that ended ignominiously. We also learn from McCullough that Neil Armstrong took a bit of the first Flyer’s fabric to the Moon on Apollo 11.

By 1910 their flying was all but over, with Orville still convalescent, and they spent much time pursuing abusers of their patents. They had worked out the method of wing-warping and movable rear rudder that enabled them to ascend and to turn under control; it was a series of circular flights and even figure-8s that convinced the crowds who came to watch that they were in full control. Eventually, Wilbur’s flights in Europe were watched not only by hundreds of thousands of people but also by royalty, including Alphonso XIII of Spain, Victor Emmanuel of Italy, and Edward VII of England. In the US, eventually most of the Senate as well as President Taft joined the spectators.

Still, the brothers remained modest. When Orville was asked “how it felt to be making history. ‘Pretty good,’ Orville said, ‘but I’m more interested in making speed.’”

The book has 38 double-sided pages of black-and-white photographs, showing not only the Wrights but also others important to their tasks, such as their mechanical assistant/colleague Charlie Taylor and their senior encourager, Octave Chanute. Five pages of acknowledgments (especially to “the incomparable Library of Congress and its staff,” the Wright Papers being there) and 33 pages of Source Notes as well as a 6-page bibliography show the thoroughness of McCullough’s work.

The Wright Brothers is so well written and fascinating that I could, to coin a cliché, hardly put it down—though my progress was slowed by the absolute necessity for me to read quotes and anecdotes to my wife. My next visit to the Wright Flyer on display in the National Air and Space Museum will be with a much broader of knowledge and heightened interest.

Astronomer and author Jay M. Pasachoff is the director of Hopkins Observatory and Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. He is a Visitor in the Planetary Sciences Department of Caltech. Williams College is home to the Gamma of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

(Posted on 4/14/2016 )