David McCullough has done it again. He’s written a biography that invites the reader to sit down and have a long, intimate conversation with significant figures in history. In his latest work, The Wright Brothers, McCullough introduces us to the two Dayton, Ohioans who first conquered human powered flight. But as with all McCullough biographies, this is no mere handshake and a “how do you do?” Nor is it an academic tome exploring the many nooks and crannies of the brothers’ ambitions, foibles, and emotions; nor of the cast of characters all vying for the historic achievement the brothers eventually accomplished.
The story McCullough tells is the tale of the brothers, their bicycle shop, and the triumph at Kitty Hawk. It is the story of how the brothers invented “wing warping,” which allowed them to control the rolling and banking maneuvers of the airplane. A competitor, Glenn Curtiss, later took the wing warping idea and invented ailerons—moveable flaps on the wings—to accomplish the same thing. (Curtiss’ invention is in use today on all airplanes, but the concept was first discovered and put into practical use by the Wright brothers.) McCullough’s story is also of how Orville almost became the first fatality in an airplane, of how Wilbur wowed the crowds and crowns of Europe (and enriching the family), and of how Katherine, the brothers’ amazing sister, served as the family rudder and chief promoter of the brothers and their ambition.
McCullough touches upon the tragedy that beset the brothers after their triumphs at Kitty Hawk, Le Mans, Pont-Long, Fort Myer, and Governors Island—the copyright infringements and legal battles, the early death of Wilbur, the falling out between Orville and Katherine, the disputes with the Smithsonian, the sale of the Wright Company, and the militarization of the airplane. But the story McCullough focuses on is one of vision and victory. He reminds us that ambition, hard work, and perseverance is the stuff of human endeavor; the refusal to be defeated by hardships, setbacks, and mishaps. Nothing great was ever accomplished overnight or in the ease of life. As Wilbur was to write: “No bird soars in a calm.” And the life and legacy of the Wright brothers is testimony to that truth.
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