The Wright Brothers By David McCullough A Review

  • May 5, 2015 9:37am GMT

The last book I read by David McCullough I started in the summer of 1992 and finished that fall. It was 1120 pages long! I enjoyed it and remember how frustrating it was trying to prop it up on airplane food trays or straining to hold it in a chair at home. It was his brick of a biography on the 33rd President of the United States. Truman won a Pulitzer Prize for McCullough and almost gave me a hernia! I'm happy to report that The Wright Brothers is only 320 pages and weight is not an issue if you choose the e-book as I did.

Master historian David McCullough, who loves anything old and still uses a Royal Standard typewriter, digs deep into the immense riches of the Wright papers, private diaries, notes, scrapbooks, as well as more than a thousand family letters to tell the human side of the Wright Brothers’ story including a very important Wright sister. He had some help, an assistant who did the traveling, a translator, the fellow historians at Kitty Hawk and the result is a detailed yet fast paced book.

Fact based, McCullough’s style makes for an easy read. He told the New York Times, "Writing history or biography, you must remember that nothing was ever on a track. Things could have gone any way at any point. As soon as you say 'was,' it seems to fix an event in the past. But nobody ever lived in the past, only in the present. The difference is that it was their present. They were just as alive and full of ambition, fear, hope, all the emotions of life. And just like us, they didn't know how it would all turn out. The challenge is to get the reader beyond thinking that things had to be the way they turned out and to see the range of possibilities of how it could have been otherwise."

After visiting the Wright Brother's Bicycle shop in Dayton during the centennial of their flight, I bought a book to find out more. After holding a piece of the Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian, thank you Walter Boyne, I read another. Neither explored their personal and family life as much as this one. Particularly the little-known contributions of their sister, Katharine. Things would have turned out quite differently without her. The book also gives deeper context and a better understanding of the 1890s. Consider that the bicycle was then thought of as something that could corrupt youth, cause them to stray from home or keep them from reading books.

Some have criticized the book for not explaining why the Wright Brothers stopped. They didn’t build the first aero plane but they did build the first one worth flying and then stuck to a design that quickly became obsolete. McCullough writes in the book, “They 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,” yet they figured out how to control flight, to design the first effective propeller, put together the first engine able to power flight and to pilot their machine. He points out in the book that neither of the brothers, “ever chose to be anything other than himself, a quality that rated high in Ohio. Not only did they have no yearning for the limelight, they did their best to avoid it. And with the onset of fame, both remained notably modest.” In that I think the critics have their answer.