Book Review: The Wright Brothers, By David McCullough

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Orville and Wilbur Wright

It is mundane to see a bicycle roll by or a car travel along the highway. Yet since the invention of the airplane, over one hundred years ago, hearing the drone of an engine then looking up to see a small Cessna or a shiny jumbo jet generates emotion; flight evokes wonder.

It was the first decade of the 20th century; Wilbur and Orville, imagined, conceived and created the first powered flight of man. The world has never been the same. After thousands of years of civilization, man was no longer bound to earth. Now, he could soar like the birds. It was the study of birds, hours upon hours of study, that helped the brothers manufacture and perfect their flying machine.

David McCullough’s book, The Wright Brothers, tells the American story of two men who had a vision to fly. What makes the story even more exceptional is that the two had little formal higher education. They were bicycle mechanics, brought up in a home where books were read. Although they grew up in a house with no electricity, books were everywhere. They read everything they could get their hands on, and they never stopped reading.

Earlier, in 1889, while still in high school, Orville started his own print shop and constructed his own printing press using “a discarded tombstone, a buggy spring, and scrap metal.” With the help of his brother, Orville began publishing a local newspaper which they sold for 45 cents a year, or two weeks for 10 cents. One article they reprinted from Architect and Building News perhaps summed up their young life,

“Do not wait for the boy to grow up before you begin to treat him as an equal. A proper amount ofconfidence, and words of encouragement and advice . . . give him to understand that you trust him in many ways, helps to make a man of him long before he is a man in either stature or years. . . . If a boy finds he can make a few articles with his hands, it tends to make him rely on himself. And the planning that is necessary for the execution of the work is a discipline and an education of great value to him.”

Their father, a Christian minister, treated them as such.“In time to come the brothers would be widely portrayed as a couple of clever, hometown bicycle mechanics who managed to succeed where so many others had failed because of their good old-fashioned American knack for solving seemingly impossible mechanical problems.”

These were the days when nothing seemed impossible. They had the passion, the intellect, the work ethic, and the determination to take a project and keep at it until they perfected it. Not only did Wilbur and Orville have a persistence to keep working, they had strong moral character. They did not smoke, drink, carouse, or speak an unkind word to people whom they interacted with. They were somewhat reclusive and never married. Their sister Katherine seemed to possess the same character traits as her brothers. She married at the age of 58–The brothers never did.
Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever, in his room on Hawthorn street in Dayton, Ohio on May 30, 1912. His brother, Orville outlived Wilbur by 36 years. He died of a heart attack at age seventy-seven on January 30, 1948.

“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.”

The book was a delight to read. McCullough has taken a technical subject, flight, and made it a human story that is inspiring and heartening, making one proud to be an American and realizing greatness begins in the home. Through the genius of the Wright brothers we are encouraged to never give up in the face of failure and to keep looking up!

6 Comments on “Book Review: The Wright Brothers, By David McCullough

  1. The kids and I are reading a book about the Wright Brothers for history right now. What an inspiring story! Did your book tell much about their mother? Our book says she was well-educated and really good at algebra and geometry. She taught them how to make accurate, detailed blueprints before starting a project, and she taught them about wind resistance.

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    • Yes, the book did have a chapter or two in which the author wrote about the mom. She was involved in teaching them all of the things you mentioned. After her death, the father kept the family together morally and spiritually, however he let them discover things on their own (they read tons of books) and was not as much of a teacher, per se, like their mother.

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  2. Another great book review Roger. I too will have to go out and get this book. Thank you for passing on the information.

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  3. I enjoyed your review and, of course, will have to go get this book. I have always been a book worm and now I do have lots of time to read. Thanks for the insight.

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