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You Can't Go Wrong With The Wright Brothers
June 30, 2016 -- I've become seriously addicted in recent years to the work of the brilliant American historian David McCullough and now he's turned his attention to the Wright Brothers.
What could go wrong with the Wright Brothers when McCullough is your navigator and narrator?
A recipient of the medal for distinguished contribution to American Letters (1996) and the author of two Pulitzer prize winners, John Adams (2001) and Truman (1992), McCullough's The Wright Brothers was a New York Times bestseller last year. You can pick up a copy in paperback now for as little as $11 and some change. The Kindle edition is just $13. Either one makes a great addition to your summer reading list.
In The Wright Brothers, McCullough turns his journalistic talents to chronicling the exploits of the Dayton, Ohio, bicycle-shop mechanics Wilbur and Orville. Fascinated by flight, the brothers Wright gorged themselves on its lore and literature. They especially relied on The Smithsonian Institution, which provided much information and became somewhat of an institutional mentor for the two.
Years of research and experimentation eventually resulted in their short (12 seconds and 120 feet) but spectacularly successful flight at Kitty Hawk on a remote beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This brief foray into the winter skies on December 17, 1903, changed the world as we knew it. It served as dramatic proof that heavier-than-air machines could conquer the physical obstacles that had heretofore frustrated mankind through the ages.
As McCullough explains, it seemed as if the whole world was obsessed with flying at the turn of the 20th century. Other Americans, some Germans, Brits and Frenchmen were also chasing the illusive prize of being the first to master heavier-than-air flight. But even McCullough doesn't claim to know what fueled the brothers' desire to convert bicycle engines to aircraft engines. What drove their success? Was it passion? Persistence? Luck? Clearly all had a role in the breakthrough.
McCullough details the journey that led the quiet and modest Wright Brothers onto the sands of Kitty Hawk. It was fraught with all kinds of difficulties and challenges. Self-taught pilots, the brothers never flew together until their father reached his 80s. But they frequently courted injuries. Orville was at the controls in 1908 when a military proving flight led to the death of a passenger. Orville's own injuries from the crash in Fort Myer, Virginia, required more than a year of recovery time.
McCullough also recounts the skepticism here at home regarding their unparalleled accomplishments and the viability of their efforts for commercial or military interests. That homegrown skepticism, as well as antipathy in Britain and France, would haunt them for years.
Pointedly ignored by U.S. decisionmakers, first Wilbur and then Orville, would bring their invention to Europe. That's where it began to gain the recognition that it deserved. The significance of their work, once viewed as irrelevant, became relevant when planes were used as weapons a decade later during World War I.
These pioneer airmen ultimately became, for a time, the most famous Americans in Europe since Benjamin Franklin.
It's interesting to note that neither of the bachelor brothers ever completed high school. That wasn't uncommon in its time, but McCullough points to the educational achievements of the close-knit Wright family. There were two other brothers and a widowed father, a Protestant bishop who worked as a traveling preacher. Their sister Katherine, an Oberlin college graduate who remained single until the age of 58, acted as an ambassador for them. She played a larger role in marketing her brothers' invention than is generally recognized.
The long road to Kitty Hawk and beyond is filled with adventures, misadventures, tragedy and the inevitable suspense that keeps you wondering if--and when--they are going to fly. McCullough's genius is in making the later battles--over recognition, patents and other legalities--equally gripping.
At only 336 pages, The Wright Brothers is short compared to other McCullough books. It's also an easy read.
Besides, where would any of us frequent flyers be without the two brothers from Dayton and their business trip to Kitty Hawk?
This column is Copyright © 2016 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.