Book Review: ‘The Wright Brothers’

Two boys from Ohio
January 27, 2016 Updated: January 31, 2016

The story of the Wright Brothers sounds like something out of a fairy tale. Against the odds, two brothers embark on a journey to make the dream of human flight come true. In David McCullough’s new book “The Wright Brothers,” the mystery is stripped away and we see the brothers for who they really are: two boys from Ohio.

The brothers were almost evenly matched—both endowed with a sense of humor, an endless supply of humility, and a familial bond that would rival Venus and Serena’s. Little brother Orville, with his fashionable wardrobe and cheerful disposition, was perhaps the more charismatic of the two. But both were undoubtedly smart.

McCullough ensures that his readers follow Wilbur and Orville every step of the way.

McCullough writes, “Everything considered, they got along well, each aware of what the other brought to the task at hand, each long familiar with the other’s particular nature, and always with the unspoken understanding that Wilbur, the older by four years, was the senior member of the partnership, the big brother.”

Nearing the turn of the century, there was plenty to do to keep the industrious brothers busy. While in high school, Orville started a print shop in the back shed. Wilbur helped when he could, but was not as dedicated to the editorial process as his younger brother. There were domestic duties to attend to, as their mother was deceased. There were home improvement projects to tackle as well, like a wraparound porch, new windows, and shutters.

Wilbur and Orville spent their post-high school years enveloped in the new bicycle craze. They opened up a shop a couple of blocks from their beloved home and built, sold, and repaired bicycles. It was in this shop that a lot of tinkering would be done to build the very first plane, as bicycles were the perfect way to get the brothers into the world of machinery.

(Simon & Schuster)
(Simon & Schuster)

McCullough ensures that his readers follow Wilbur and Orville every step of the way by describing what they studied, what they ate, and how they lived while inventing the “flying machine.”

History would be made at a simple camp at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which was carefully chosen due to its constant wind, tall hills, and soft sand. Here is the stage for the first major climax of “The Wright Brothers”—the first controlled flight in an engine-powered machine.

McCullough describes this scene so vividly and with as much action as a blockbuster film. It’s hard not to get swept away in the gusts of wind from that historic first.

In order to fully understand who the Wright Brothers were as well as the magnitude of their achievement, these details are crucial. Rather than feel like a bystander looking back at history, the reader feels like a third brother or sister.

No matter where their experiments took them, the Wright Brothers understood the value of family and fostered those bonds whenever possible. The two were close to one another, they were close to their father and younger sister, and they were happiest at home in Ohio. No matter where their travels took them—North Carolina, Paris, Washington D.C.—they were always in correspondence with their loved ones back in Dayton.

Because McCullough brings a genuine humanity to our understanding of Wilbur and Orville, they could very well have been our brothers. They could have been us. They were, after all, just a couple of boys from Ohio.

In the story of “The Wright Brothers,” greatness can be found anywhere and never far from home.

‘The Wright Brothers’
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster
320 pages; $30

Chelsea Scarnegie lives and writes in the Chicago area.