The Wright Brothers by David McCullogh

In the corner of the Club pub is a picture of the Wright flier just off the ground at Kitty Hawk. It captures an instant of the 12 seconds of December 17th 1903, that changed the world: man flew. It’s a story we’ve heard but it wasn’t till my reading David McCullogh’s recent telling that I appreciated the scale of the achievement. Two self-taught bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, beat government and military-financed projects around the world to the achievement. It was science and daring-do wrapped in humility. McCullogh writes it with the admiration it deserves, tinged with incredulity at the list of quiet achievements it took.

The story opens with a picture of the close Wright family growing up in the modest, disciplined house under Bishop Milton Wright. The Bishop kept his family entertained with his letters describing his train journeys across the United States. At home, his discipline did not extend to ensuring that the Brothers attended school… so long as they used the time to read well. This spirit of correspondence, reading and adventure proved so valuable in the development of powered flight.

At 18, Wilbur looked set to leave the family home and head for university, when a school bullying injury did as much damage to him emotionally as physically. He retreated to the comfort of his family, inadvertently paving the way for a deeply trusting and enduring relationship with his five-year younger brother, Orville.

When bicycles became a craze, the Brothers saw the opportunity to start a repair business and ultimately make their own bicycles. It’s hard to imagine but bicycles proved so revolutionary that they were feared by the older generation, concerned that they would provide a distraction for children meant to be reading, allow them to stray from home and even act as a conduit for increased sexual dalliances. What they did do is provide the engineering shop and manufacturing confidence to launch the project that became the Wright Flier.

On weekends, the Wright Brothers began experimenting with their flying machine. Firstly, they read everything they could about gliding and the physics of flight. Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian boldly requesting any appropriate literature they had. And the curator obliged. They learnt too from watching birds. They were observed standing watching and mimicking the actions of birds in flight, moving their arms and twisting their wrists for hours. These activities and, indeed the very notion that they might fly, appears to have led many onlookers to believe that they were bonkers.

In a prodigious feat of correspondence, the Brothers canvassed weathermen and postmasters around the country for a place with favourable winds and soft sands. Finally, they selected Kitty Hawk, a fishing hamlet of little more than sand spits a day’s sail off the eastern shores of North Carolina base. It was near here that they spent their summers, camped near a natural air field, refining their designs. That they finally succeeded is now generally accepted but the remoteness of the field and the modesty of the experiments caused many to doubt. Even when they returned to Dayton and took to flying close to the town, their success was not widely acknowledged in the United States.

Where McCullogh excels is in his recounting of the little details that the Wrights considered in their designs. In much the same way that Orville and Wilbur would conduct extensive pre-flight inspections, the author documents the development of the Wright’s unique “wing warping” system, leading to a patent for ailerons; the tooling and building of an aluminium engine from scratch in the bicycle workshop; and the refinement of a revolutionary wing design in a home-made wind tunnel in defiance of scientific literature of the time. Each piece of the puzzle is explained with wonder.

With flight achieved, the focus shifts to convincing sceptics and raising funding to pursue longer and higher flight. The action shifts to France while the Americans appear to disregard the achievement. Wilbur becomes a star in Europe, earning the admiration of the common folk and kings and presidents alike, drawing crowds and training airmen. Orville remains in the States and suffers in an accident that proves a setback for him and the project there.

The story of Wilbur’s dignity and equanimity in success and his continued attention to detail commands much of the remainder of the book. It culminates though in an astounding celebratory flight around Manhattan in challenging conditions, the turbulence induced by the skyscrapers a new experience.   But it still took the American officials years to publicly recognise the Brothers’ achievement.

This is a book I will read again and one that I hope my kids will read. As I raise an aileron into a turn, I picture two men in black suits, standing on a windblown sandbank, arms outstretched, staring at gulls, twisting their wrists and processing ideas for a wing that would lift us into the sky. That this was happening only 115 years ago is astounding.

Certainly I’ll pay more respect to the story behind the picture in the corner of our pub thanks to McCullogh’s book.

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