‘If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life,” Wilbur Wright once wrote, “I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” This unshakeable foundation of earnest midwestern pragmatism suffuses David McCullough’s new portrait of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.
“The Wright Brothers” delivers a tidy and relatively short history of the lives of Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912), brothers who “lived in the same house, worked together six days a week, ate their meals together, kept their money in a joint bank account, [and] even ‘thought together,’ ” as Wilbur once claimed. The surprise of McCullough’s biography is that there are no surprises: The brilliant yet modest Dayton bicycle shop owners prove to be precisely the men we expect. What of the fact that neither seemed to have ever experienced a romantic relationship? On page 8, McCullough writes that “Orville liked to say it was up to Wilbur to marry first, he being the older. Wilbur professed to have no time yet for a wife. To others he seemed ‘woman-shy.’ ” Both brothers died bachelors. And that’s the last we hear of that.
At times this portrait of the brothers and their Ohio hometown reads like a version of Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt” minus the social satire, a sunny-side-of-the-street, boosterish tour of American ingenuity in the good old days. “[T]he times were alive with invention,” McCullough writes, “new ideas of every kind . . . [in] a city in which inventing and making things was central to the way of life.” But it’s convincing: Dayton, Ohio in the 1890s was filled with energetic, creative people and exploding with industry. It wasn’t just the Wright brothers; it was people like Charlie Taylor, the self-taught genius mechanic and shop manager of the Wright Cycle Exchange who built the engine that powered their airplanes. And the great African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the only black student at the brothers’ high school who was first published in the local newspaper his friend Orville Wright published on his backyard printing press. Something special was happening in Dayton.
The most vivid passages of the book detail the rugged conditions of their great experiments at Kitty Hawk, N.C., the site of their historic first flight. There, among the sand dunes, they built a camp by hand, digging their own well for water and enduring mosquito infestations and winds so strong “they had to leap from bed to bed to hold the tent down.” But of course that’s why they were there: in search of a steady wind to lift their plane. As Wilbur wrote in his notebook, with rare poetical flourish, “No bird soars in a calm.”
The nitty-gritty of exactly how they succeeded is told in fascinating detail, from Wilbur’s 1899 letter to the Smithsonian requesting reading lists on aviation to the sateen fabric used for the plane’s wings, which was recycled into dresses for the little girls of Kitty Hawk after the brothers went home. McCullough rightly highlights the brothers’ incredible efficiency; from that first letter to the first successful human flight, the Wright brothers spent four short years and less than $1,000, “a sum paid entirely from the modest profits of their bicycle business.” Their closest aviation competitor spent $70,000 and failed.
While there is much to like here, McCullough’s gee-whiz attitude toward America’s favorite flying Boy Scouts does feel a bit retro. And his strangely insular work focuses so tightly on the fraternal geniuses that the rest of the world vanishes from sight, an irony considering that the brothers’ invention would probably do more to bring the global community closer than any other technological marvel of the era.
But perhaps the book’s scope and ambition befits its subjects. Modesty is the great theme of “The Wright Brothers.” Aeronautics has always been a combination of science and art, depending on bombastic personalities to sell the fantasies and quiet technicians to actualize them. Orville and Wilbur were the rare humble visionaries. In 1909 Wilbur made the first flight of an airplane around the Statue of Liberty and the New York Daily Sun reported that hundreds of thousands of “cheering men and women ashore bore witness . . . [as] Wright seemed to pause for a moment to pay the homage of an American aviator to the lady who attests his country’s destinies.”
When Wilbur landed he turned to his trusted mechanic and simply said: “Goes pretty well, Charlie.”
THE WRIGHT BROTHERS
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., illustrated, $30Buzzy Jackson is a historian and author of “The Inspirational Atheist: Wise Words on the Wonder and Meaning of Life.” Email: AskBuzzy@gmail.com