The Wright Brothers
David McCullough
(Simon & Schuster)
We all know the story of the Wright Brothers. These two country bumpkins were interested in flying and so they figured out how to build a primitive glider in their bicycle shop there in the midwest somewhere and since they were afraid that other people would steal their secret, they went off to North Carolina to play with it in the wind and they experimented with gliders and when one worked they came back later with a motor and put it in the glider and after some false starts they managed to get one of these to fly for a few minutes and then they went back to their bicycle shop in the midwest and no one was the wiser and they faded from sight and later on after they died someone figured out that they really were the first to fly but no one ever thanked them for figuring out how to do it so they were completely unknown and unsung heroes, part of the American Dream.

At least that was how it filtered down to us when we were in high school. And then we happened upon some books about them, such as Wind & Sand by Lyanne Wescot which got our interest up so that when we got wind of this newest biography, The Wright Brothers, we immediately wrote Simon & Schuster and asked for a review copy: and not in the least because we have been fond of McCullough since we had read his excellent The Path Between the Seas when it came out in 1977. We had never forgotten that very idiosyncratic element of his books. That is, unlike most other Historians, he knew how to write, write simply and directly, often with pith, which for his peers --- such as the insensate Martin Gilbert --- was practically unheard of.

So we waited with bated breath for the book and when it didn't come we wrote again to Simon & Schuster, sent them a very personal, loving letter, telling them that we revered the good David McCullough, and that we thought that because we had been so enthusiastic about earlier works of his we would very much appreciate a chance to get this one and . . .

. . . well, maybe Sumner Redstone had put S&S on a strict diet --- the bottom line, you know, no more free books to high-minded albeit sometimes silly reviewers like us. Or maybe it was our sassy review of one of their recent titles, Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher. That might have tipped our name over the edge into the would-be reviewer black sinkhole. Because we wrote of Fisher and her book: "My friend Tom used to refer to "torment books" like this as just another man with a monkey on his back. In Carrie's case, the monkey on her back included having Tony and Debbie as father and mother --- with an interlude for step-mother Elizabeth Taylor."

    I'm not so sure about these star gossip volumes [we continued]. Sex and drugs and fame, as hairy as they are, are, in the long run, hardly the answer to The Big Questions of Life. And when Fisher isn't being a star and making lots of money, her problem evidently has to do with too much drugs and far too many vittles.

In other words, we decided, after waiting around all too long for the Wright Brothers to fly over to our mail-box, that S&S was suffering from a long-term memory disorder so we said to hell with them and bought the book from Amazon . . . got it in two days for half the listed price. (It turned out that we received a review copy that had been sent out to another unnamed publication, less seedy, no doubt, than RALPH. From the virginal condition of the book, we figured that their hoity-toity reviewer didn't wait a moment until he could hot-foot it downtown to sell the brothers for a pretty penny to Amazon to augment his wretched by-the-book salary.)

I'm glad we got it even if we were stiffed into paying for it. Because it's a dandy book. I got through it in a couple of days, hoping against hope that Wilbur or Orville would not simply go down in a blaze of good will in their evanescent airship because of some malfunction in what was, after all, a large but delicate homemade kite.

The thought of one or the other of them plunging several hundred feet in a blaze of fluttering cloth and wood straight into the sands of Kitty Hawk or the crabgrass around Huffman Prairie, Ohio was Not Good. Because by the time they started flying we had become attached to them and their Calvinistic ways: solemn Wilbur, the (slightly) more bibulous Orville; in their suits, high collars, and all-too-proper fedoras.

Fortunately, they survived long enough for us to learn these facts about them:

  • Far from being Okies from Muskogee, the brothers were well-read, studious, and learned . . . especially Wilbur. When he went to Paris in 1907 to meet with a representative of Flint & Co --- they wanted to buy his patents --- he spent much of his time looking at "the great buildings and art of Paris, revealing as he never had, or had call to, the extent of his interest in architecture and painting. It was the Louvre that he kept going back to again and again, spending hours there and logging still more miles walking the long galleries. His description of the paintings he saw could go on for pages, a sign, it would seem, of how much interest in art there was at home as well . . .

    "Such keen interest as he had in art was not only remarkable in someone so committed to technical innovation [writes McCullough] but a measure of a truly exceptional capacity of mind. As weeks, then months passed, Wilbur, of his own choice, visited the Louvre fifteen or more times."

  • It was birds that most interested the brothers --- not so much their flying as their gliding capabilities. The brothers would spend hours --- in the countryside in Ohio and on the dunes of North Carolina --- studying the way our feathered friends used their bodies for control in flight. Of especial interest was the buzzard which could soar for hours, searching for and finding updrafts.

  • They viewed air currents as related to the waves and currents of the sea. Like the poet John Clare (who wrote of birds "rowing" through the atmosphere), birds in the air could be seen as equal to fish in water. In his journal, Wilbur quoted a book by J. Bell Pettigrew on "Walking, Swimming and Flying." He also studied the volumes of Otto Lilienthal, a German glider enthusiast from the mid-19th century, who wrote that "the secret of 'the art of flight' was to be found in the arched or vaulted wings of birds, by which they could ride the wind." One commentator even opined that Wilbur had the face of a "large bird." The influence of their thinking as avians led to the first flights where they were not sitting but lying flat on their stomachs, much as a bird could be thought of as being supine when flying.

  • The choice of the place to do their testing was not random. They wanted a site in America with winds that "could be counted on, winds, say, of 15 miles per hour." Wilbur wrote to the United States Weather Bureau in Washington about prevailing winds around the country, and they were sent a list of "monthly wind velocities at more than a hundred Weather Bureau stations, enough for them to take particular interest in a remote spot on the Outer Banks of North Carolina called Kitty Hawk."

  • After the first tests on the beaches there in the fall of 1900, they knew they had to use more power than was offered by the prevailing winds, so one of their workers in Dayton, Charlie Taylor, constructed a noisy smelly four-cylinder aluminum gasoline engine, which the author describes was "amazingly simple and crude," as was most everything they built. They were to know the engine intimately, which was easy since the only way for them to fly was lying down cozied up next to it.

  • The next item of business was the propeller. The screw propeller used on boats they found to be of no help. It turned out that the best one they built was nothing more than "an airplane wing traveling in a spiral course." Orville's discussion of it is a fascinating study of the concept of such a novel device, but it is a wonderful insight in the way the two of them grappled with the problem of a key element of their model, for "nothing about a propeller, or the medium in which it acts, stands still for a moment."

      The thrust depends upon the speed and the angle at which the blade strikes the air; the angle at which the blade strikes the air depends on the speed at which the propeller is turning, the speed the machine is traveling forward, and the speed at which the air is slipping backward; the slip of the air backward depends on the thrust exerted by the propeller, and the amont of air acted upon.

    "When any one of these changes, it changes all the rest, as they are all interdependent on one another."

§   §   §

There happened to be a parallel project to build an airplane to fly over the Potomac, funded by the Smithsonian Institute in 1903. It cost $70,000 (almost $1,000,000 in today's dollars), "while the brothers' total expenses for everything from 1900 to 1903, including material and travel to and from Kitty Hawk, came to a little less than $1,000, a sum paid from the modest profits of their bicycle business."

After their initial successful flight of fifty-seven seconds, they found themselves ignored by the media of the day, the magazines and newspapers of the nation, as well as the local ones. The city editor of The Dayton Daily Journal, one Frank Tunison (who also represented the Associated Press), said, "If it had been fifty-seven minutes, then it might have been a news item." When they finally were discovered, it didn't come from the Journal, or the Chicago Tribune, certainly not the New York Times or the Scientific American. It came from a man from Ohio who presided over several thousand little airplanes of his own, in his own back yard.

His name was Amos Ives Root. He edited a trade journal, called Gleanings in Bee Culture. He did bees for a living, and he wrote, of the brothers' first successful flight: "God in his great mercy has permitted me to be, at least somewhat, instrumental in ushering in and introducing to the great wide world an invention that may outrank the electric cars, the automobiles, and all other methods of travel,"

    and one which may fairly take a place beside the telephone and wireless telegraphy. Am I claiming a good deal? Well, I will tell my story, and you shall be the judge. In order to make the story a helpful one I may stop and turn aside a good many times to point a moral.

And he did, too --- bringing in the old Biblical morals. It was a didactic story, to say the least, for Root was a man of God in the same mold as Bishop Milton Wright: the always patient, always understanding father to the two boys and their charming sister Katherine.

§   §   §

At the end of this page-turner, the things we are left with are how the ever-steady Wilbur, and the slightly more lubricious brother Orville worked together, talked together, thought together, learned together, were almost Siamese in their need and ability to be as one. They were brothers that you and I may envy, two who were always comfortable with each other, who debated and elucidated and conceived their great baby together, the one that soon enough would soar.

In the face of so many disbelievers, how could this salt-of-the-earth pair out of the rural backwashes of Ohio come up with the answer to a dilemma that had baffled so many for so long, one that caused one of their friends to write,

    When you see one of these graceful crafts sailing over your head, and possibly over your home, as I expect you will in the near future, see if you don't agree with me that the flying machine is one of God's most gracious and precious gifts.

A final surprise that McCullough leaves us with, one that, at least for me, was the least expected . . . was a longing to somehow fly back to the time in which these brothers lived. This sentiment comes partly from the dozens of black-and-white photographs here filled with the air of early 1900's America constructed by the author.

Hawthorne Street, in Dayton, with the plane trees in bloom in the spring, the house --- a simple unprepossessing Victorian frame house at #7 --- reworked by the brothers.

It was a clean, orderly place, in a clean orderly city, in a clean orderly world (no fret-filled catastrophes in the Middle East;, no massive bombs sitting, waiting, a finger on the button; and, thank god, no drones).

It was a world filled with an assumed innocent virtue, the mainstay of America in the early days of the 20th century. Dayton, Ohio, a provincial locale where two industrious young men just decided one day that they were going to solve a problem that had plagued humanity from the first day that the first man saw the first birds in flight.

How to do that?

How to soar?

How to go up without fear, pass over with pleasure, come down with surety, land with joy, and go home at ease.

After another fine day spent gliding about in the warm and ravening air.

--- Richard Saturday