The Wright Brothers, David McCullough

Being at a Marine base, I see a lot of cars with the license plate of North Carolina (due to the large Marine Base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Camp Lejeune). On the plate, there is a faint blue picture of a Wright Flyer with the license number superimposed on top. At the top, it says “First in Flight.” Unless you live in a closet, you know that the Wright Brothers were the first humans that achieved flight on the outer banks at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina around the turn of the 20th century. What is interesting is we get on planes perhaps every year (or nearly every year) and it has become normal in our lives. It was not always this way: in fact, humans have spent the greater half of 2000+ years trying to reach the sky.

I’m reviewing my second book on Dr. Al Mohler’s Summer Reading List that is about the Wright Brothers written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, David McCullough. This book reminds me of one I read last year called “The Aviators” which was about the formation of early advances in flight by Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Jimmy Doolittle (which I did not write a book review about). Those three giants in aviation could thank thank the Wright Brothers for developing the earliest flying machine that had ever been known to man.

The two brothers grew up in Ohio with their dad Bishop Wright and sister, Catherine Wright. Their mother died early in life and the brothers benefitted from an academic upbringing that led to them tinkering quite a bit with all kinds of machines. After high school, the two brothers (who were practically inseparable) opened a bike shop. It was in this that they began to tinker with bigger ideas.

The two brothers used the profits from the bike shop to start inventing a flying machine. They worked tirelessly, with incredible persistence to perfect their machine. They figured that they would need greater wind than that in Ohio to make the flying machine lift so they moved their experiments to Kitty Hawks, North Carolina. They went in September to take advantage of the fall winds. They had little success several years in a row but kept coming back each year to test their newest flyer. With some modifications, they finally hit a breakthrough when they added a combustible engine in 1903 among other changes. In was in December when they made the first flights by a human in the history of mankind.

What is slightly humorous is that no one would believe them at first and they kept the press at bay with incredible secrecy. The US government would not entertain notions that they had produced a flying machine so they turned to potential buyers in Europe. In 1907, Orville traveled to Paris with a Wright flyer to demonstrate the significant advances the brothers had made in aviation. Wilbur joined him sometime later, as well as Catherine.

They kept making changes to the flyer and broke every world record in aviation. Much more could be said about the brothers, but the most interesting aspect of their story is their uncompromising sense of pursuit. When they failed, they surely got discouraged but were back at it day after day, unwilling to settle for mediocrity.

The thought also crossed my mind that while something like the airplane has greatly increased efficiency in the world, it also has seen it turned into a weapon. Wilbur died in 1912, but Orville lived on in life until 1948. He witnessed the mass destruction that his marvelous invention could do to people. I don’t have the exact quote, but he said something to the effect that the flying machine was in essence like fire: there are thousands of uses of fire once cultivated, but also destructive purposes as well.

This is really an outstanding book of scholarship and a gripping story. I highly recommend!

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