The Wright Brothers

I read a lot and most books, while I enjoy them, don’t capture my imagination or inspire awe about the subject. Every once in a while I read a book that just blows me away. I recently read such a book. It was “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough.
I was riveted from the first page. I thought I knew a lot about these two men, Wilbur and Orville Wright, who changed our world. I mean I have been in the business all my professional life, I am an aviation history buff, have taken classes on aviation history and read numerous books about aviation history. I have visited Kitty Hawk multiple times and stood at the rails where the first flight of the Wrights took place. But I learned so much more about them, and their genius, that I had to write about this book and recommend it to anyone. Here are some of the interesting things I learned.
Wilbur became obsessed with the idea of conquering the challenge of manned, powered flight and began to read all the available documented research on the subject. The Smithsonian provided numerous books and research including the work of Louis Pierre Mouillard, who had studied the aerodynamics of birds, a method the brothers also used before building their first flyer. Wilbur also looked intently at the work done previously by Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute and other experts of the day. Chanute, a somewhat older, wiser contemporary, became an adviser of sorts. Initially the brothers took all the previous research as gospel.
The next remarkable thing was the idea of safety that permeated all the brothers did. As they determined that a place with steady strong wind was required for their experiments and found Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, they began building their first flying machine and transported it there in pieces.
Remember that many had died in hasty, poorly researched attempts to fly. But Wilbur wrote this while at Kitty Hawk preparing for their attempt, “The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and overconfidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.” He knew that to solve the problem would require a steep learning curve. To climb that curve, the brothers would need to live through their attempts. Therefore, they determined to stay low to the ground and found the soft sand of Kitty Hawk the perfect emergency landing surface.
The next point about these two brothers that hit home hard for me was that even among the rugged, hard working men and women of the remote and harsh North Carolina coast, the Wrights were greatly admired for their work ethic. One of the locals who helped and observed them over many days said they were “’two of the workingest boys’ ever seen‘ and when they worked, they worked. They had their whole heart and soul in what they were doing,’” according to McCullough’s book.
Of course I couldn’t write about the Wright Brothers without mentioning their stoke of luck in hiring a gifted mechanic, Charlie Taylor, to run their bicycle shop while they were experimenting with flight. Little did they know when they hired him to work at their bike business, how important a role he would play in their success. When the brothers wrote to auto engine makers with specifications for their engine needs, no one could provide it. So, Charlie was tasked with making the engine to order. Without his skills, who knows what would have transpired.
Meanwhile, as their knowledge grew and experiments continued, others around the world were attempting to solve the same problem of manned flight. Notably, Samuel Langley, head of the Smithsonian Institute, had been given a grant of $50,000 and had poured an additional $20,000 into his attempt. In front of numerous reporters and other observers his device called “The Great Aerodrome” launched from a floating platform in the Potomac River south of D. C. It immediately crashed into the river and sank, a mere two months prior to December 1903.
Langley was humiliated and the press were relentless in their taunts. The character of the Wright Brothers is made clear when they were asked about the flight and said the behavior of the press was “shameful” and that Langley’s work “deserved neither abuse nor apology.”
The most important thing the Wrights did, in my opinion, was to finally disregard the long-established research and calculations of those who came before them and were considered experts. They realized after doing their own tests, that the data of those pioneers was not correct and set out to create their own, including designing and building a wind tunnel to gather their own data.
As we all know, the Wrights made their first powered, manned flight on December 17, 1903. All in all, according to McCullough’s book, they spent less than $1000 to get there.
“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough is full of interesting and awe-inspiring facts about these two men, who are often portrayed as hicks from Ohio who ran a bike shop. In fact, they were brilliant, focused and determined to solve the problem of manned flight. I highly recommend this book.

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