Saturday, July 30, 2016
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
One strength of this book is showing how the Wright brothers experimented, tested, improved, and did not give up in their pursuit of flight. They represent the engineering design process that educators teach to students in elementary school and up. And the author mixes in the human side of the Wright family with their aeronautical achievements to make a highly readable, educational, and entertaining book. As public figures, Orville and Wilbur did not seek nor celebrate fame, but were true to their sole purpose of learning to fly. Their sister Katharine was high-tempered ("wrathy"), opinionated, loyal, and caring. She was the spitfire of the three and added color to the the brothers' story. Wilbur was brilliant and Orville a mechanical genius. The family had arguments but was mainly close and supportive over the years.
The Wright brothers had a successful bicycle business for many years before the idea of flight consumed much of their time. They built a glider and tested it at Kitty Hawk, a rugged island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where the wind always blew. Living out of a tent they refined and tested their planes eventually succeeding at flying one. They added an engine later in the designs. Katharine helped manage the bicycle business while teaching at a nearby hospital and Charlie Taylor ran the shop while they were at Kitty Hawk as well as being critical in building the engine the Wrights' used on one of their gliders.
Once they had accomplished successful flights, the Wrights had problems with legitimizing their claims of success with the U.S. government. Part of this was their way of going about business. The brothers were afraid of others stealing their ideas and were waiting for a patent so they would not fly for anyone unless the interested party signed a contract before their demonstration. The U.S. government was not interested in their proposition, but France was and Wilbur went there for demonstrations and a contract. The publicity made the U.S. take interest. Later the U.S. army offered a contract and Orville provided demonstrations. After a serious crash, Orville was nursed back to health by Katharine while Wilbur continued with demonstrations in Europe. Orville and Katharine joined Wilbur in Paris and they met with kings from different countries and other influential people. They were a sensation and enjoyed the fame while their father, a Bishop, continually reminded them to stay grounded.
The Wright brothers were self-educated and persevered no matter what the set back. Their educated father had an extensive personal library that allowed for the children to read the likes of "Dickens, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, a complete set of the works of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Virgil, Plutarch's 'Lives,' Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' Boswell's 'Life of Johnson,' Gibbons' 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,' and Thucydides. There were books on natural history, a six-volume history of France, travel, 'The Instructive Speller,' Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species,' plus two full sets of encyclopedias." Once back in the U.S. the brothers, particularly Wilbur, spent many years on patent lawsuits that David McCullough skims over. This is a fairly short book and is not highly technical. This may appeal to some and to others they might want less camber. The pacing and mix of technical and human side of the Wrights was just right for me. See if it's Wright for you.