Review of The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
I took my first airplane ride at age fourteen and have been hooked on flying ever since. Now imagine taking your first airplane ride and being the only person in the world to have had that experience. This book takes the reader on a fascinating trip back in time. You’re along for the ride as Wilbur and Orville go from initial idea, to first time aviators, to worldwide celebrities.
David McCullough pieces together the story through the use of personal letters and correspondence from all involved. It’s as if the author interviewed Wilbur, Orville, their sister Katharine, and every individual they came in contact with. The end result is a story that is as close to like being there as you can get. The fact that all of these letters and personal accounts somehow survived the intervening decades is amazing.
In my lifetime I have seen the invention of the personal computer, the Internet, and the cell phone. But they don’t compare to what the Wright Brothers accomplished. The inventions mentioned above involved a lot of collaborators. Wilbur and Orville did it all on their own. What little knowledge there was at the time about aerodynamics and unpowered flight was of little help. They had to figure things out on their own through trial and error. They even built their own wind tunnel to test out their theories. When they couldn’t find an engine to meet their needs, they designed their own. They used proceeds from their bicycle shop to fund their research and experiments.
When they finally accomplished the impossible, they were met with skepticism at home. The most detailed account of their first flights was covered in a magazine about bee keepers. So they went to France to do their initial demonstrations to a more receptive audience. At a time when the automobile was still fairly new, Wilbur and Orville routinely travelled between the US and Europe.
Before reading this book, I knew nothing about the Wright family. While Wilbur and Orville deserve the credit, they had a list of supporting players that played significant roles in their success. Their father Milton Wright, a Bishop, supported the brothers at every step, and their sister Katharine was an important go-between when the family was separated. Their mother, Susan Wright, passed away before the boys went on to fame, but she helped mold them into what they became.
Another surprise for me was the story of what happened after their initial success. Wilbur died young, in his mid forties, and didn’t get to enjoy the wealth and fame that came his way. In fact, he spent most of his time mired in lawsuits and in battles over whether or not they were first to demonstrate powered flight. There’s probably another book on this subject alone.
As much as I enjoyed the book, there are a few things that I feel hamper this book from being a number one best seller as opposed to sitting somewhere in the middle. First is the Kindle price. If you want to read this book on a Kindle, you’re going to have to pony up $14.99. That is too high for an eBook. Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken was initially $12.99, but it soon dropped to $9.99 and stayed on the top of the best seller lists for months. Another annoyance is the publisher’s lack of effort put into the eBook. The source notes are not accessible and the images are at the back of the book. When will publishers get it? It’s an electronic book. You can format the book so you can read a source note by clicking on it. Images should be contextual. It costs nothing for you to put the images in context where they belong.
Finally, I know this book will be made into a movie. If there are any producers out there looking for a writer, I would love to write this screenplay. Call me.
I’ll admit that I was reluctant to get this book for fear that it might be a dry history lesson. It wasn’t. This is nonfiction at its best. Read it.