I’ve been absorbed in David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers (2015), the story of how brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright invented and flew the first successful airplane, starting with their historic flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.
Although David McCullough is one of my favorite historians, I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d find the book all that compelling. True, I’ve been an airplane geek since I was a boy, and I had long been familiar with the iconic narrative of the two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and used virtually all of their spare time to learn about flying. But I figured that I knew what I wanted to know about that story.
Last month, however, I went to a talk by David McCullough about his new book, and the stories he shared from it, with his characteristic enthusiasm for history, stimulated my interest. I started reading and soon became enthralled. I’ve been keeping at it, reading only a few pages at a time, because I find myself constantly putting the book down to reflect upon what a great story this is from so many perspectives.
It was obvious that McCullough came to deeply admire his subjects. He talked about how Orville and Wilbur were raised in very modest surroundings by a missionary father who believed very strongly in the power of reading, how their sister Katharine strongly influenced and supported their work, and how an intense devotion to teaching themselves the science and mechanics of flight led to their success.
The brothers were smart and eager to learn. Wilbur, especially, demonstrated qualities of genius. Their accomplishments were especially remarkable given that, as McCullough writes, 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.”
At the time Orville and Wilbur were reading the existing scientific studies about the prospects of manned flight and conducting experiments with homemade wind tunnels in their bicycle shop, other more prominent, well-funded inventors and scientists were also trying hard to become the first to achieve motorized flight. But this did not dissuade them from their goal. In fact, they largely rewrote the book on the science of flying. and in the process refuted the previous findings of many “experts” on aviation.
There is so much more that I want to share about what I’m discovering in this book, and someday I want to write a longer piece that incorporates some of its stories with broader themes about self-education, innovation, individual character, resilience and determination, and bold, smart risk-taking.
Suffice it to say, however, that this is among McCullough’s most important books. He has written about great historical figures such as George Washington, John Adams, and Harry Truman, but The Wright Brothers, as he noted during his book talk, is not about politics, conflict, and war. Rather, he compared the genius of the Wright Brothers to that of the Gershwins. Indeed, this is a different kind of historical story, one that may inform and inspire others who want to build, invent, create, and dream, without being cloaked in hazy mythology. We need more stories like that today.