David McCullough’s new history “The Wright Brothers” takes an oft-told tale and turns it into a tribute to the triumphant underdog. McCullough appears June 14 at the Paramount Theater in Seattle.
‘The Wright Brothers’
by David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $30
As a writer who made his name with the biographies of two remarkable presidents, David McCullough seems to have flown far afield (pardon the pun) with his latest book, “The Wright Brothers.” The link between these projects, however, is McCullough’s love for the triumphant underdog. By this measure Harry Truman and John Adams fit his bill, and so do Wilbur and Orville Wright.
The story of the modest Midwesterners who taught the world how to fly is familiar fodder for schoolchildren, so what’s new to report? Not much, actually, but McCullough overcomes this hurdle with his immense yarn-spinning skills, digestible details about the mechanics of flight and a definite point of view. As he explains:
The two brothers, a preacher’s sons, had “no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.” Plus, their experiments carried significant risk to life and limb — a matter of which Wilbur and Orville were so aware that, while testing their ideas, they always flew one at a time.
The author will discuss “The Wright Brothers” at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 14, at the Paramount Theater, 911 Pine St. in Seattle. Free — no tickets or reservations required. Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. and the Seattle Public Library (206-386-4636 or spl.org).
Surrounded by well-placed and well-heeled rivals and mocked by conventional wisdom, the Wrights were single-minded, even obsessed. Neither ever married or had much life outside work. They owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, where aerodynamics first entered their thinking. Wilbur, in particular, developed a curiosity about the flight patterns of birds and how they might be imitated for human flight. The Wrights’ eureka idea, inspired partly by German glider pilot Otto Lilienthal, was the belief that what mattered most was lift, not power.
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At first the brothers experimented with their rudimentary flying machine at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, chosen partly for its constant winds and partly for its privacy. But as their progress and confidence increased, they took their trial runs back to Dayton.
From there, they tried to interest the U.S. government in what they’d done. But the D.C. bureaucrats rebuffed them repeatedly. Instead, it was the French who came knocking, with a check in hand. In 1908 Wilbur spent a triumphant year in France, at one point flying two hours, 20 minutes and covering 77 miles.
This was a stunning feat, given that only five years before — at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903 — Orville piloted the Wrights’ 605-pound motorized flyer half the length of a football field in 12 seconds.
As might be expected, the Wright brothers’ triumph came with some cost. During a demonstration near Washington, D.C., Orville had a serious crash that killed his fellow passenger.
Wilbur ended up being absorbed by a falling-out with one of their former champions, as well as lawsuits over patent infringement. Katharine, the loyal sister who McCullough credits as her brothers’ emotional and logistical mainstay, got married in her 50s — a transgression that made Orville so mad he didn’t speak to her again until she was on her deathbed.
These events affect but can’t quell McCullough’s enthusiasm as he recounts this story of extraordinary achievement against the odds. He calls Wilbur a genius but emphasizes that what mattered for both men was less their brilliance than their persistence and imagination.
“It wasn’t luck that made them fly,” said one eyewitness to the historic 1903 flight. “It was hard work and common sense.”