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The Wright Brothers by David McCullough


By Stuart Nulman



In 1899, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright ran a successful bicycle shop in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. While selling and repairing bicycles were their métier, flying and flight were their fascination.


That fascination started with their father, a prominent religious leader, who showed them the wonder of flight when they were young, when he brought them a helicopter-type of flying toy. From there, Wilbur and Orville’s penchant for learning and acquiring more knowledge was geared towards birds, in particular, how birds fly.


On May 30, 1899, Wilbur decided to take that fascination with flight to the next level. Using two sheets of Wright Cycle Company stationery, Wilbur sat himself down and decided to write a letter to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to express his and Orville’s intentions of expanding upon the concept of flight … mechanical flight involving humans, that is.


“I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business,” he wrote. “I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution as published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language.”


From this simple request to the Smithsonian, Wilbur and Orville Wright began their quest to create a mechanical flying machine the following year at the remote town of Kitty Hawk, located in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On December 17, 1903, after three years of experimenting with a series of gliders that they constructed on their own, Wilbur and Orville took turns operating their new mechanized flyer. Before the day was half over, Wilbur managed to operate the newfangled plane – made of wire, wood and muslin – for a half-mile in the air, at a distance of 852 feet, for a total flying time of 59 seconds.


The world of human transportation was never the same again.


Highly respected American historian and author David McCullough, who is the host of the PBS series “The American Experience”, has turned the lives of former U.S. Presidents John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and the story of the construction of such landmarks as the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, into critically-acclaimed best sellers. In his newest book, called plainly enough The Wright Brothers, McCullough gives a refreshing look to these modest bike shop owners who became the most unlikely 20th century technology pioneers.


Like his other historical magnum opuses, McCullough uses his strong ability for thorough research and lyrical prose to give a more fleshed out, humanistic approach to the story of the Wright Brothers and their contribution to aviation. In fact, it goes beyond the usual high school American history test question treatment that Wilbur and Orville have received for more than a century.


The amazing part of the story that McCullough tells is how modestly the brothers went about in their quest to pioneer mechanical flight, and when they achieved that historical – yet brief – flight at Kitty Hawk, how they were virtually ignored (and at times ridiculed) by the American people and the American press that was always searching for the ideal story to attract more readers and increase their circulation.


Strangely enough, it took a column by an Ohio beekeeper named Amos I. Root in the January 1905 edition of the journal “Gleanings in Bee Culture”, and the interest of the French Army a year later, that finally brought due recognition to the Wright Brothers and their motored flyer, not to mention the impact of that brief, historic flight at Kitty Hawk would have in the world of transportation.


When Wilbur arrived in France in 1907, his French backers allowed him to expand and improve upon his flyer, which allowed him to fly further and stay in the air much longer. By 1908, Wilbur and Orville were regarded as virtual national heroes in France, and the improvements they made to their flyers were attracting large crowds to each experimental flight they did at Le Mans, and influenced a generation of pioneering French aviators like Louis Bleriot, who became the first man to fly across the English Channel in 1909. This heroic recognition by the French brought the brothers the much-needed attention by the U.S. government and the American people to their achievements in human aviation.


However, with such rapid advancements came a stream of lawsuits against rivals like Glenn Curtiss (who would soon establish his own aircraft company) over who owned the rights to the mechanical innovations of their respective flying machines. The constant legal battles that Wilbur faced wore him out physically, and he died of typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 45; Orville survived his brother by more than 30 years, and was able to enjoy the honours and acclaim the U.S. and the rest of the world bestowed upon him as an aviation pioneer before he died in 1948.


McCullough does an exceptional job telling the story of the Wright Brothers and their rather lonely quest to break ground in the nascent field of manned flight. Through letters, contemporary accounts and thorough research, we get a fascinating portrait of two humble men with a shared passion to change the world of transportation, and how they did it in a very low key manner. And McCullough also gives the reader a more realistic side to the myth of Wilbur and Orville Wright; one instance is the realistic portrait he gives of the now mythical location of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which in reality was a hot, isolated hamlet on a sandbar (but gave ideal conditions for the brothers to test their newfangled flyer).


The Wright Brothers is a historical tome that follows McCullough’s trademark mode of giving a realistic face to some of America’s greatest figures and achievements, while keeping their respective mythical status and contributions intact. In the case of Wilbur and Orville Wright, McCullough gives a bold example of the brothers’ lasting influence to the development of civil aviation. When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon during the landmark Apollo 11 mission in 1969, he brought along with him a small swatch of muslin that was taken from the wing of the flyer that the Wright Brothers used on that historic first flight at Kitty Hawk on that December day in 1903.


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Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week.  You can either listen or download it at, or subscribe to it on iTunes.  Plus you can find it at,, True Talk Radio, streaming on, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at


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