Book Review: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

How do you make two self-effacing, quiet Ohioans who do almost nothing in the prime of life but work on a wild dream interesting?  Give them over to David McCullough and let him tell their story, that’s how. As with everything else of his that I’ve read, McCullough manages through the simple description of events without excess or hyperbole to weave a story that will move you to awe and teach you much about not only history, but the human spirit, human accomplishment and human relationships.

I suppose one could write a deeper psychological profile of the Wright Brothers that might explain much about how they came to accomplish what they accomplished. But McCullough is less interested in the psychology of what drove Wilbur and Orville Wright – and not insignificantly their schoolmarm sister Katharine – than in the simple courage and devotion they brought to the process of inventing the airplane. He provides just enough description of their childhood to show us the foundation of faith, family and industry on which Wilbur and Orville’s lives were built, they he takes us to their bicycle shop and the annual trips to Kitty Hawk where the two brothers steadfastly nurtured their curiosity about the science of flight until they managed to solve the puzzle of flight.

While McCullough is painstakingly clear about the scientific influences that helped the Wrights develop their airplane, he is equally precise in demonstrating how and why they were the first to harness the principles of sustained mechanical flight.  But in the process, he also describes the host of hobbyists, financiers and pioneers who  were striving to get man into the air.  One can have little doubt that if they hadn’t succeeded when and how they did, someone else would have before long.

But the someone turns out to be these two guys, brothers who seem to have had few temptations to take them beyond the bosom of the immediate family and neighborhood in which they grew up. And, having been raised myself amid hardy, creative, mechanically minded problem solvers (though sadly not one myself), I found it easy to imagine them poring over their books and drawings and workbenches, overcoming each little obstacle until they had demonstrated what their intelligence and intuition told them had to be true – that if the materials could be shaped in the right way and given the right fuel and conditions, a machine could be made that could fly under the control of a pilot.

In The Wright Brothers, you’ll move from the dawn-of-the-century streets of Dayton, Ohio, to the lonely, windswept sands of Kitty Hawk and the Outer Banks and eventually to the streets of Paris and the adulation of the world. And you’ll see a simple family with simple needs but a steadfast determination and a grand dream.  It’s a wonderful story, perhaps not McCullough’s best, but that’s only because he has told so many so well. I learned a great deal about science, culture, people and, of course, the development of flight from this book. Spell-binding would not be the word to describe it, but unfailingly interesting is more accurate, and, to my taste, just as compelling.