The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The first photo of flight snapped by a man who was taking his first picture ever. The Wright brothers were very careful to document each stage of their development not only with photography, but also with journals.
”The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power.” Wilbur and Orville Wright
They were brothers.
As close as two peas in a pod and you could make it three with Katharine, the little sister who also at times provided the role of mother and first wife to flight. (neither brother ever married) There were two older Wright children, both boys who lead fairly normal decent lives. They grew up in a more traditional home with the mother and the father, but by the time the three younger children came along their mother was not alive to raise them, and their parson father was travelling extensively trying to build up followings in churches all across the nation.
Orville dropped out of high school to start his own newspaper. Wilbur soon joined him. It became the first of many alliances between the brothers, though claiming not to be very good at business, their resume shows something quite different. Despite how close they were their devotion to one another was not always based on harmony.
”Wilbur...believed in ‘a good scrap’. It brought out ‘new ways of looking at things,’ helped ‘round off the corners.’ It was characteristic of all his family, Wilbur said, to be able to see the weak points of anything. This was not always a ‘desirable quality.’ he added, ‘as it makes us too conservative for successful business men, and limits our friendships to a limited circle.’”
If you have strong family ties your need for an extended circle of friends certainly diminishes. Sometimes family does not provide friendship and many of us have to find that solace elsewhere. As I always told my kids it is better to have one really good friend than an extended circle of “friends”. Those “friends” may believe that they are your friends, but I’ve found when the chips are down those “friends” suddenly become “acquaintances” and sometimes very distantly so.
The Wright Brothers may have fought vigorously with each other, but each was a sounding board for the other to clarify their thinking. A good battle would often have them getting together the next morning with each brother switching to the other’s opinion creating yet another skirmish as they tried to prove the other right.
When the bicycle craze began, the brothers were on the leading edge by opening the first shop in Dayton to repair those bicycles. It wasn’t long before they decided they could make a better bike and in the basement of their shop they started making bikes to order. They named them Van Cleve (launched 1896), after an illustrious ancestor of theirs who helped settle Ohio. They were successful business men yet again.
Wilbur first turned his thoughts to flight. He may have followed Orville’s lead into the printing business, but this time Orville was following after Wilbur. It was a true partnership and like the Paul McCartney and John Lennon alliance they took equal credit for all that they created.
First in flight was plural. They flew!
Orville on the left was always a bit more dapper than Wilbur on the right. Here they are on the Wright Flyer 1 in 1910.
I’m not going to go into the trials and tribulations that lead to the first powered, controlled flight of an airplane on December 17th, 1903. You’ll have to read the book to find out those details. I will say I was surprised at the length of the process. I thought that after 1903 they were lauded and celebrated, but it actually took much longer than that for the world to take notice of exactly what they accomplished. The French showed much more interest than the American government which was a source of disappointing to the Wright Brothers. I do wonder if H. G. Wells, with his creatively conceived books of the future, was already contributing to the French fascination with flight.
In a reversal of roles from what I expected the Americans were sceptical while the French felt that anything was possible.
It was interesting to me that the venerated Samuel P. Langley of the Smithsonian was competing with the Wright Brothers. He had raised over $70,000 in funds to build his airplane. The Wright Brothers in comparison spent $1,000 building their airplane using only funds raised from profits from their bicycle shop. We do not celebrate Langley as the first to fly so you might be able to ascertain that his expensive prototype did not fly. As the Wright’s heard about the progress of their competitors it never bothered them. They had a vision of where they had to get to and never wavered from their intended course or worried about whether someone else would fly first.
”It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea and they had faith.”
They built a concept out of a garage before America even had garages. If Steve Jobs were alive today and had read this book he would certainly have identified with the ability of the Wright Brothers to take an idea and refuse to let it go. One thing we know is that all over World there are people tinkering in their basements, garages, and on their living room floors. They are taking wisps of ideas and turning them into reality. As they drive to work, as they sit at a desk at work, as they turn a bolt on an assembly line, they are dreaming about contributing something new to humanity.
Walking in tandem.
The Wright Brothers did become wealthy, but certainly not as wealthy as they could have if they had been showmen or if money had really been the be all and end all of learning how a man can fly. They were focused on the HOW, fame and fortune would take care of itself. I couldn’t help but admire them and be inspired by their bred in the bone entrepreneurship that took them from a printing press to a bicycle shop to conquering the sky.
”On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 flyer.”
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