Memphis Reads – The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Staff Book Reviews

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough Book CoverPhilip reviews THE WRIGHT BROTHERS by David McCullough (Simon and Schuster, 2015)

From the first chapter to the last, I found David McCullough’s account of the lives of the two brothers who changed history by inventing the airplane a fascinating read. McCullough is a gifted writer who does a wonderful job of telling Wilbur and Orville Wright’s story. McCullough includes many passages from the Wrights’ letters, diaries and notebooks, as well as passages from letters by their sister Katherine, their father Bishop Milton Wright and from others who knew the famous brothers. So, McCullough often uses Wilbur and Orville’s own words, as well as their family members and friends own words, to tell the story of the two fathers of modern aviation.

In an interview published in Air and Space Magazine about The Wright Brothers, McCullough was asked if Wilbur and Orville had notable weaknesses or flaws. He replied that they really did not. They were hard-working, virtuous men. Men of determination and resilience. Though neither man had a college degree both men were geniuses. That the two unassuming bicycle mechanics could accomplish in creating their “flying machines” what human beings over the centuries had only dreamed of, and what many thought impossible, is one of the most remarkable feats in human history.

We learn in the book how important their father Bishop Milton Wright and their sister Katherine were in the brothers’s lives. It was their father who fostered an intellectual curiosity in his sons and who provided them access to his great library of books on a wide range of subjects. And it was Katherine who was always there for them, who always encouraged and cared for them, and who they loved dearly.

It is interesting to learn, in the book, that while they read the literature on aviation written by the early aviation pioneers of their day, that an important part of their learning how to fly came from reading about birds and how they fly, and by spending hours observing birds in flight. They saw that birds have vaulted wings which is what gives them control and balance in flight. This observation led them to do a slight warping of the wings of their flying machines to help them maintain a controlled and balanced flight.

It was also interesting to learn about Charlie Taylor, whose contribution makes him an important figure in the Wright Brothers story and the history of aviation. Taylor was also an unassuming man, a machinist in Dayton, hired by Wilbur and Orville to run their bicycle shop while they conducted their experiments with their flying machines at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It was Taylor, after the brothers learned to fly their flying machines and were ready to add a motor to their final one at Kitty Hawk, who built, according to Wilbur and Orville’s specifications, a four-cylinder, aluminum cast motor from scratch for it.

And as so many are well aware, on December 17, 1903, the first flight of a heavier than air machine in the history of the world was made by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it.

Philip Williams, Cordova Library