The Wright Brothers
Simon & Schuster 336pp £8.99
It is not easy to capture the wonder of the first controlled heavier-than-air flight, the stunned amazement of the onlookers, but David McCullough’s recent book gets close. His The Wright Brothers is a very readable study that gives an unprecedented look at the two brothers’ lives around their first flights and a picture of the world of flight at the turn of the century. McCullough focuses on the ‘human story’ of the whole Wright family, a focus well suited to his sources: the letters, diaries, technical data books, documents and proposals, and a ‘much larger quantity of private family papers than is generally known’, held by the Library of Congress.
McCullough admirably paints a picture of the Wrights’ determined and methodical style of working and connects it to their background and personal characteristics. This tells us about the brothers, but not about the achievement for which they are known. For example, their background as bicycle mechanics seems limited in McCullough’s account to familiarity with careful mechanical engineering; he argues that the brothers maintained their business (spending significant time on it, in fact) in order to finance their flying experiments. What he doesn’t explain is how having designed bicycles influenced the design and construction (or stability) of the Wrights’ unique aircraft.
Very interesting, though, is McCullough’s documentation of the Wrights’ observation of birds. Unlike earlier pioneers of flight, who were misled by trying to fly like birds, crucially the Wright brothers studied how birds glided using the air rather than how they produced power by flapping.
Nevertheless, this account does not spend much time on the engineering details of the brothers’ work. The reader cannot really evaluate how the knowledge of the Wrights changed over time as a result of their many largely private experiments, including, as McCullough tells us, their small, privately built wind tunnel,
unprecedented at that time. Although, admirably, he does paint a picture of the Wrights’ connection to other pioneers such as Chanute, Langley and Blériot, McCullough does not give the reader a clear understanding of how the Wrights’ knowledge fit into aviation expertise at the time (apart from the fact that some existing knowledge proved inaccurate). If you want to know what the brothers contributed to aeronautics, you will need a different book. One possibility is the much more technical study based on the Wrights’ aircraft, written by Peter Jakab of the Smithsonian in 2014.
What McCullough’s human focus allows him to do well is to tell the story of the Wrights’ reception: in France, where the Wrights were first seen as fakers but soon embraced, in Dayton and in the United States. He contrasts well the frenzied public interest in flight with the brothers’ indifference to public acclaim. And he clarifies that, although the Smithsonian was infamously opposed to the Wrights’ claim for precedence, the US war department gave the Wrights a contract in 1908, which included public demonstrations that attracted attention from many civil servants in Washington DC. McCullough’s exploitation of a relatively unknown archive turns up important details about the lives of the Wrights, giving us further insight into the men who made the world’s first flight and their time.
Hermione Giffard is a historian of technology, whose PhD thesis was on the history of the jet engine.