In The Wright Brothers, David McCullough’s latest book and perhaps his best, he tells the story of the two brothers who accomplished what scientists, inventors, and dreamers throughout the centuries hadn’t: They taught man how to fly.
Like most of us, McCullough knew very little about the Wright Brothers before he began the book. In an interview with NPR earlier this month, he spoke about what drew him to the story.
I knew next to nothing about them. I knew what most all of us receive quickly in about a ten-minute flash of light on the subject in high-school history or whatever. And when I began to read about them, I couldn’t get over how much there was to them individually and as a unit, as it were, and what a really extraordinary and, I think, inspiring human story they are and very, very representative of something particularly, I think, proudly American.
What made the story of these two brothers so compelling? McCullough explained:
Well, they had an objective, a purpose, which they considered to be — and this sounds like a bad pun — a high purpose, and they set their minds to achieve it. And to do it with no sense that there was any reason why they couldn’t do it, . . . they didn’t have any money, they didn’t have any political contacts, they didn’t have a great university or a foundation behind them, but they thought they could figure out what is — how it is that birds can soar. Not just fly, but soar. And the big question was how do they do that? And they had been making bicycles and selling bicycles in their little shop in Dayton, Ohio, and, of course, bicycling is about balance, equilibrium.
Of all of those attributes, the last may have been the most important. While others toiled with the problem of mechanical power, it was because of their experience running their bicycle shop in Dayton that the Wright brothers were uniquely positioned to think about the problem of balance as it relates to flight.
What also made these two men uniquely positioned to solve this age-old problem was this: They were do-it-yourselfers. They weren’t interested in theoretical approaches to solving the problem of flight. They learned the old-fashioned American way: by trial and error. McCullough explained:
And the other very important fact that they realized is that it isn’t enough just to invent theoretically or invent in fact a machine that might fly on its own power, but to know how to do it, to know how to fly just as if you made a bicycle — you can’t just say here’s the bicycle but you don’t know how to ride it. And the only way to learn to ride a bicycle is to ride the bicycle. So they didn’t just invent the airplane. They learned, as no one ever knew before, how to fly it, and that means riding with the wind and adjusting having wings that will do the necessary adjustments that will make it possible to stay in the air.
Their trial-and-error approach was not without risk. McCullough explained how these two brothers were essentially the first test pilots, precursors to men like Chuck Yeager.
Every time they went up, and they would go up 50 to 100 times in a year, they had a very good chance of being killed. And for that reason, they never flew together, because if one got killed, the other would be still alive to carry on with the mission.
“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees the others,” according to Aristotle. And it was Wilbur and Orville’s courage that most impressed McCullough, and the perseverance that their courage engendered.
Their courage is to me at times almost unfathomable. And when they’re besieged by the mosquitoes down at Kitty Hawk, almost eaten alive, literally, and yet they would not leave. I would’ve gotten the hell out of there as fast as I could. And I think most everybody else would too. It was pure torture, but they would not give up.
What made this story most uniquely American, however, was the circumstances of their upbringing. These two men grew up without much of anything in the way of wealth or material possessions. But their social and economic status was to have no bearing on what they thought was possible because their father would have none of that. There was not a stitch of Marxist economic determinism in the Wright household. McCullough described life as the young Wright brothers knew it:
They didn’t have indoor plumbing. They had no telephone, none of that. But they had books, books aplenty, and the father insisted that they read and read about everything. And he insisted that they learn how to use the English language. He insisted that their handwriting be not only legible but that their vocabulary was wide, and their use of verbs and adjectives and syntax, all that, it was as if they were having a magnificent English professor all through their lives. And this played a huge part in the success that they had.
This was a uniquely American advantage the Wright brothers enjoyed at the beginning of the 20th century, when a person’s dreams were bound by his social class. They were raised to believe they could do anything.
We also learn about the role that chance — and tragedy — played in the lives of these men. It turns out that they might never have been the first in flight but for a terrible accident Wilbur suffered when he was nearing his college years. McCullough explained:
He was all set to go to Yale and he thought he wanted to be a teacher or a professor, but he got hit in the teeth with a hockey stick in a hockey game, when he was about 18, that knocked out all of his front teeth, upper front teeth, left him in terrible pain, and he slipped into a strange and unfortunate but, it turns out, very fortunate, for all of us, period where he imposed a seclusion on himself: isolation at home. And during that period, it was during that period that he began to really read, and read with not just energy and concentration, but read about everything. In a way, he got his own liberal-arts education on his own at home and with an intensity that he probably wouldn’t have achieved had he gone to college, because there’d be so many other things going on.
Wilbur essentially homeschooled himself, and his life — and his brother’s — took an entirely different turn.
To the interviewer’s point that the brothers’ story was distinctly American, McCullough responded.
I feel very strongly, yes, it is very distinctly American, Midwestern American at that time. I saw — kept feeling it as I was writing this book — clear linkages or similarities to Harry Truman. Truman never went to college, they never went to college. Truman faced adversity again and again in his life, as did they. Truman failed many times in many ways but never let that defeat him or discourage him completely. So did they. I think how you handle failure, how you handle a sudden unexpected blow that knocks you down, is crucial, not only to leadership but success.
It turns out that Wilbur and Orville Wright had two other advantages in their quest for flight: location and time. McCullough explained why being born in Dayton — and living in early 20th-century America — was a blessing for the two young men.
It was a little bit like the Silicon Valley of today, in that — well, most of the industrial cities of the country were — because all kinds of new things were coming into being. The telephone, the light bulb, the elevator, it — the cash register. And it was a very positive time. We weren’t at war. We were about to build the Panama Canal. We had no national debt. We had a national surplus. And to have been in Dayton, Ohio, if you were a mechanical — mechanically inclined or interested in a mechanical or industrial or scientific innovation, was to be in the hotbed of where it was all happening. So they were — it was a renaissance time, if you will.
The story of the Wright Brothers was also a story about the efficacy of “government investment.” It turns out that the head of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel Langley, who himself was himself an inventor and a renowned scientist, put a team of the best and the brightest minds together to launch a manned-flight project, and put some serious government money behind the project.
Only it didn’t pan out. The project, which cost some $70,000 — a large sum at the time — was a complete disaster, McCullough explained. “The Langley project unfortunately deterred the government from taking a serious interest in the Wrights because they really wasted so much money on something that didn’t work at all,” McCullough explained.
‘We didn’t suppose the aeroplane could ever be practical outside the realm of sport,’ Orville Wright said. ‘It was the sport of the thing that appealed to Will and me.’
Not that the Wright brothers would have taken the help. They thought that outside investment — from either the public sector or the private sector — would mean that they had relinquished control of their day-to-day work and decision-making. So they used their own money, and used it judiciously, rather than answer to any outsiders.
If you think the scientific elites fared poorly in this story, you’ll love the way the media elites came off. It turns out that, believing that a couple of bike-shop owners could not possibly do what they’d claimed to have done, never bothered to check out their story. But Amos Root, a writer with an interest in scientific pursuits, a guy who made a small fortune making beekeepers’ equipment, went down to Dayton to see things for himself. McCullough explained what happened next.
He wrote a superb article describing the flight that he saw. It wasn’t only very descriptive. It was very accurate, and of considerable length. The first full accurate, fair reporting of this phenomenon that changed history was written by a beekeeper, published in his little newspaper.
That’s right. It took a beekeeper to break the biggest science story of the year. But there’s more:
Root then sent his story to Scientific American, saying, You’re free to publish this at no charge, and they just dismissed it as the writings of some whacko out in Ohio. The arrogance, the superiority of those who were in the know, again and again, in the government, in journalism, was almost comical.
Our government elites weren’t much interested in the story, either. McCullough described the situation:
Our federal-government people wouldn’t even get on the train and ride out and take a look when the Wrights offered to bring their machine to Washington to demonstrate. No, not interested. They had their door slammed in their face about three or four times, and then a delegation of French officers from Paris showed up in Dayton, liked what they were able to determine, and said, You bring your plane over to France, demonstrate for us in public what you can do, and we’ll buy your machine.
You heard that right. It took the government of France to recognize America’s latest great inventor. Wilbur was given a hero’s welcome in France, McCullough explained:
Biggest hero, most popular American in France since Benjamin Franklin. They loved him. They adored them. And the fact that he spoke no French seemed to make him even more popular, because he was so American. They wanted the American to act like an American. And his modesty, his attention to hard work, his honesty, his character.
The “c” word appeared again and again in this interview because the Wright brothers’ story is a story about character. “Character counts again and again and again,” McCullough said. And McCullough loved the character of both men. He described them this way:
They weren’t in it to become famous or to become rich. They were in it to do it right. And their attention to detail and their — they not only didn’t like the limelight, they tried to avoid it whenever possible. But eventually they did fly. They broke every record that had ever been broken, including many of their own right over here.
This was also a distinctly American idea. These brothers were, in the end, hobbyists, driven not by fame or wealth but by the challenge. “If we had been interested in invention with the idea of profit,” Orville Wright told his first biographer in 1939, “we most assuredly would have tried something in which the chances for success were brighter. You see, we did not expect in the beginning to go beyond gliding.”
Orville continued: “Even later we didn’t suppose the aeroplane could ever be practical outside the realm of sport. It was the sport of the thing that appealed to Will and me. The question was not of money from flying but how we could get money enough to keep on entertaining ourselves with it.”
Perhaps McCullough’s most revealing story about the nature of the Wright brothers centered around their early days in Kitty Hawk. They were two unknown tinkerers far from home, testing their ideas in the sloping sand dunes of North Carolina. The locals didn’t know what to think: Most thought the brothers were a bit crazy. Their days were filled with setback after setback — and some small advances. The work was dangerous, and the infestation of bugs, as noted earlier, unfathomable. And yet the men, McCullough points out, looked back at those years with the greatest fondness:
And the odd thing is that after years or even after months, they would talk about that time on Kitty Hawk as the best time of their lives, because they were in the midst of the work. Their love of work, their passion for their work, their joy in their work: There’s a great lesson to be learned for all of us in that.
Those lessons may be the best things we learn from this remarkable story: that you don’t need fancy degrees or social status to achieve great things, that work is fun, that money isn’t everything, and that there is something unique about this thing we call the American character.