The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough
If anything is known about the Wright Brothers it is the fact that they were the first people to engage in powered flight, in Kitty Hawk, in the Hatteras region of North Carolina. And, to be sure, that story is in this book, in far more detail than it is commonly understood. This is a book that is easy enough to appreciate on its own merits, although given that previous books have been written about this subject material it is unclear why exactly this book needed to exist. Still, if one grants the fact that many books can be written about subjects even if they do not necessarily provide new information in the larger historiography, it is clear enough why the author wanted to take on the subject matter for himself. Although McCullough is perhaps most famous and well known for his books about Presidents (Truman, John Adams), he has written plenty about other notable people and events (The Path Between The Seas) within American history, and it is this second category of books that this volume is a part of. Whatever can be said about McCullough as a historian, he writes narrative history with skill and his books are always pleasant to read and worthwhile to ponder and this book is no different in those regards.
This book is a bit more than 250 pages and it is divided into three parts. After a prologue, the first part of the book explores the early life of the Wright Brothers (1), the beginnings of the dream of flight (2), their gliding experiments in Kitty Hawk that prepared them for powered flight (3), and their unyielding resolve to the solve the problems of mastering powered flight (4). The second part of the book begins with their initial successful flight (5) in North Carolina, their further experiments in flight in Dayton (6), their efforts at having a capitol exhibit of their flying (7), and the triumph of Wilbur in Le Mans (8). The third part of the book then looks at a dangerous crash that severely injured Orville (9), the joy that the brothers had in exploring Europe (10), and their celebration as flying became more celebrated and more popular (11). The book ends with an epilogue, acknowledgements, source notes, bibliography, illustration credits, and an index.
The Wright Brothers are figures who are immensely quirky, and reading about them only made me puzzle more about the way that creativity is viewed within society. Although people often write about and celebrate innovation and creativity, surprisingly little is often read and taught about the process of creativity and how it can be cultivated. Nor, it must be admitted, are creative and innovative people often the most flattering of people to portray, something that can be found here. Admittedly, Orville and Wilbur Wright are a great deal more flattering as people than many in their lane, but they (and their sister) were undoubtedly very odd and quirky people, with quirky parents who likely set an example of oddity to follow. Perhaps most unfortunately, the three people at the heart of this story never married and had children and thus failed to pass on their wealth and insights to future generations. Their children were the people that they taught how to fly, and those people were among the founding generation of those who learned how to master powered flight. As someone who has always been fascinated by travel, this is a worthwhile and intriguing investigation of the complexity of reputation and the challenge of how one goes about exploring the unknown and expanding what is possible for mankind. McCullough vividly explores the dream of powered flight.