A few weeks ago I went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (the one at Dulles Airport). We only had a few hours, so we took the 2 hour guided tour of the museum. There we saw and heard about the plane by the former head of the Smithsonian that was both a friend to and competitor with the Wright brothers. That was what I needed to pick up David McCullough’s most recent book.
Almost everyone knows the basic story of the Wright brothers. Two bicycle manufacturer/mechanics became fascinated with the idea of flying and by themselves, without any real attention, constructed the first airplane. But it is the details that really are so fascinating.
The brothers were not as isolated as I thought. They were in conversation with many of the others that were working on airplanes. But the main difference seems to be that the Wrights were focused on experimentation and trial and not theory. The Smithsonian president that I mentioned was a friend of theirs, but he was also focused on theory. He spent a lot of money and effort, constructed an airplane and made a big production of its trial. Then when it failed he would start from scratch without really understanding what when wrong.
The Wright brothers started with gliders to understand how that worked. They watched birds closely to understand how they used air currents. The Wright’s built a wind tunnel to understand the theory instead of just accepting the generally understood science (which was wrong.)
The brothers were conservative on their approach, only flying together once, more than a decade after their first flight so that there would always be one of them to carry on the work if there was a serious accident. But also conservative in other ways. They did the work themselves, they used their own money and did not accept any offers of support. They worked as their own mechanics and pilots and later business managers. (The last of which was probably a mistake.)
But other aspects of their lives were also interesting. They were bachelors for their whole life. Their sister also didn’t get married until her 50s and her marriage created a rift in the family. (Two other siblings married and moved away fairly early.) Their father was an author and bishop, but the brothers, while being very observant of the sabbath, did not seem to be that active with their own faith.
This is the shortest book I have read by David McCullough. I listened to it on audiobook from the library and McCullough narrated the book (as I prefer). McCullough is one of those historian authors that both understands how to write well and how to tell a story and the importance of doing good history.