by Pat Rooney
David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers “is a story that resonates with anyone who believes deeply in the power of technology to change lives and the resistance some have to new innovations.” This quote by Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, sums up the book in a nut shell. The story, of course, is about two bothers from Dayton Ohio. The technology is a flying machine built from scratch with hard work, determination, failure and persistence. Yankee Ingenuity at its best.
McCullough skillfully weaves the brothers’ home life and its importance into the book. The two youngest sons of a minister and his wife were gifted mechanically. Their mother sensed this and always kept whatever they made as adolescents. Their genius was understated at first, opening a bicycle shop in Dayton to make a living while always dreaming of flight. Wilburn, for example, was always studying birds, fascinated by how they flew.
The book goes into detail about their struggles with their difficulties of flight, often disagreeing with each other forcefully. One of their big successes was a homemade wind tunnel which helped in their design of the wings. Their first year Kitty Hawk speaks to both successes as failures as they made progress, but more often experienced failure in the plane’s design. The engine is a case in point. After failing to get any acceptable bids from local manufacturers (i.e. lightweight) they decided they had to build their own.
The book also explains how in the early 1900’s the country was caught up in the thrall of flight. There was much press coverage and other competing inventors trying to fly with very dismal results. The U.S. Government had funded one inventor with Smithsonian Museum ties. After spending a large sum of money and after numerous failed attempts, most recently in the Potomac River, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked “why so far after so much attention has been paid to ‘aerial navigation’ had there been so few results?”
Wilburn and Orville were ultimately successful, of course, at Kitty Hawk, the following year. An interesting aspect of the story speaks to Jesus’ admonition that “you can’t be a prophet in your hometown.” Few believed them. Especially in Dayton. During the process they were considered “fools” who were crazy and eccentric. Even the Federal Government ignored their request to sell their invention to the military. This forced Wilburn to go to France where their successful flights there enthralled the world and spurred continued innovation in flight. In 1908 it was Wilburn alone flying his machine. One year later there were 22 pilots and planes competing for new records. Higher, faster, longer.
McCullough completes the astonishing story using family correspondence, written records and his deep understanding of the country to bring the story to life. A story of distinctly American ingenuity, hard work and success, a story that changed the world dramatically, and a story that still resonates today. Highly recommended.