The Wright Brothers
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The Wright Brothers

David McCullough

  1. 336 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

The Wright Brothers

David McCullough

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About This Book

The #1 New York Times bestseller from David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize—the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly—Wilbur and Orville Wright. On a winter day in 1903, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two brothers—bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio—changed history. But it would take the world some time to believe that the age of flight had begun, with the first powered machine carrying a pilot.Orville and Wilbur Wright were men of exceptional courage and determination, and of far-ranging intellectual interests and ceaseless curiosity. When they worked together, no problem seemed to be insurmountable. Wilbur was unquestionably a genius. Orville had such mechanical ingenuity as few had ever seen. That they had no more than a public high school education and little money never stopped them in their mission to take to the air. Nothing did, not even the self-evident reality that every time they took off, they risked being killed.In this "enjoyable, fast-paced tale" ( The Economist ), master historian David McCullough "shows as never before how two Ohio boys from a remarkable family taught the world to fly" ( The Washington Post) and "captures the marvel of what the Wrights accomplished" ( The Wall Street Journal ). He draws on the extensive Wright family papers to profile not only the brothers but their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them. Essential reading, this is "a story of timeless importance, told with uncommon empathy and fluency…about what might be the most astonishing feat mankind has ever accomplished… The Wright Brothers soars" ( The New York Times Book Review ).

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Part I




If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.


In as strong a photograph as any taken of the brothers together, they sit side by side on the back porch steps of the Wright family home on a small side street on the west end of Dayton, Ohio. The year was 1909, the peak of their fame. Wilbur was forty-two, Orville thirty-eight. Wilbur, with a long poker face, looks off to one side, as though his mind were on other things, which most likely it was. He is lean, almost gaunt, long of nose and chin, clean-shaven, and bald. He wears a plain dark suit and high-laced shoes, much in the manner of their preacher father.
Orville gazes straight at the camera, one leg crossed nonchalantly over the other. He is a bit stouter and younger-looking than his brother and has a touch more hair, in addition to a well-trimmed mustache. He wears a lighter-toned, noticeably better-tailored suit, snappy argyle socks, and wingtips. The argyles were about as far in the direction of frippery as any of the Wright men would ever go. Prominent, too, in the pose, appropriately, are the hands, the highly skilled hands that, by the time the picture was taken, had played a substantial part in bringing miraculous change to the world.
To judge by the expressions on their faces, they had little if any sense of humor, which was hardly the case. Neither liked having his picture taken. “Truth to tell,” one reporter wrote, “the camera is no friend either to the brothers.” But what is most uncharacteristic about the pose is that they sit doing nothing, something they almost never succumbed to.
As others in Dayton knew, the two were remarkably self-contained, ever industrious, and virtually inseparable. “Inseparable as twins,” their father would say, and “indispensable” to each other.
They lived in the same house, worked together six days a week, ate their meals together, kept their money in a joint bank account, even “thought together,” Wilbur said. Their eyes were the same gray-blue, though Orville’s were less predominant and closer together. Their handwriting was quite alike—consistently straight and legible—and their voices so alike that someone hearing them from another room had trouble knowing which was doing the talking.
If Orville was always noticeably better dressed, Wilbur, at five feet ten, stood an inch or so taller and as would be said more often in France than Dayton, women found him somewhat mysterious and quite attractive.
Both loved music—Wilbur played the harmonica, Orville, the mandolin. At work they sometimes found themselves spontaneously whistling or humming the same tune at the same time. Both were strongly attached to home. Both liked to cook. Biscuits and candy were Orville’s specialties. Wilbur took pride in his gravy, and for the Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey insisted on taking charge of the stuffing.
Like the father and their sister Katharine, the brothers had tremendous energy, and working hard every day but Sunday was a way of life, and if not on the job then at home on “improvements.” Hard work was a conviction, and they were at their best and happiest working together on their own projects at the same waist-high bench, wearing shop aprons to protect their suits and ties.
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.
Not that things always went smoothly. They could be highly demanding and critical of each other, disagree to the point of shouting “something terrible.” At times, after an hour or more of heated argument, they would find themselves as far from agreement as when they started, except that each had changed to the other’s original position.
As often said, neither ever chose to be anything other than himself, a quality that rated high in Ohio. Not only did they have no yearning for the limelight, they did their best to avoid it. And with the onset of fame, both remained notably modest.
Yet in a number of ways they were unidentical twins. There were differences, some obvious, others less so. Where Orville moved at a more or less normal pace, Wilbur was “tremendously active of movement,” gesturing vigorously with his hands when making a point, walking always with a long, rapid stride. Wilbur was more serious by nature, more studious and reflective. His memory of what he had seen and heard, and so much that he read, was astonishing. “I have no memory at all,” Orville was frank to say, “but he never forgets anything.”
Such were Wilbur’s powers of concentration that to some he seemed a little strange. He could cut himself off from everyone. “The strongest impression one gets of Wilbur Wright,” an old schoolmate said, “is of a man who lives largely in a world of his own.” Morning after morning, lost in thought, he would hurry out the door without his hat, only to reappear five minutes later to retrieve it.
Wilbur also, it was agreed, had “unusual presence,” and remained imperturbable under almost any circumstance, “never rattled,” his father was proud to say. He was an exceptional public speaker and lucid writer, which seemed out of context for someone so often silent, and though reluctant to speak in public, when he did his remarks were invariably articulate, to the point, and quite often memorable. In his professional correspondence, the innumerable proposals and reports he wrote, and in private correspondence no less, his vocabulary and use of language were of the highest order, due in large measure to standards long insisted upon by his father. It had proven an ability of utmost importance to his and his brother’s unprecedented accomplishments.
“Will seems to enjoy writing, so I leave all the literary part of our work to him,” Orville would explain. In fact, Orville, too, greatly enjoyed writing, though in family correspondence primarily, and especially in letters to Katharine he did so with spirit and humor. That Wilbur, in the early stages of their enterprise, wrote nearly all letters concerning their interests in the first person, as if he were operating entirely on his own, seems not to have bothered Orville in the least.
Orville was the more gentle of the two. Though talkative and entertaining at home, often a tease, outside the house he was painfully shy, something inherited from their deceased mother, and refused to take any public role, leaving all that to Wilbur. But he was also the more cheerful, the more optimistic and naturally entrepreneurial, and his remarkable mechanical ingenuity figured importantly in all their projects.
Where Wilbur was little bothered by what others might be thinking or saying, Orville was extremely sensitive to criticism or mockery of any kind. Then, too, Orville had what were referred to within the family as his “peculiar spells,” times when, overtired or feeling put-upon, he could turn uncharacteristically moody and irritable.
In public gatherings, it was invariably Wilbur who attracted the most attention, even if he had little to say. “By comparison,” one observer wrote, “Mr. Orville Wright does not possess any pronouncedly distinctive personality. That is to say, your eye would not be drawn to him among a crowd of men in the fashion in which it would instinctively dwell on Mr. Wilbur.”
Like their father, they were always perfect gentlemen, naturally courteous to all. They neither drank hard liquor nor smoked or gambled, and both remained, as their father liked to say, “independently” Republican. They were bachelors and by all signs intended to remain so. Orville liked to say it was up to Wilbur to marry first, he being the older. Wilbur professed to have no time yet for a wife. To others he seemed “woman-shy.” As remembered one associate, Wilbur could “get awfully nervous” whenever young women were around.
What the two had in common above all was unity of purpose and unyielding determination. They had set themselves on a “mission.”
They lived still at home with their father, an itinerant clergyman who was often away on church work, and their sister Katharine. Younger than Orville by three years, she was bright, personable, highly opinionated, the only college graduate in the family, and of the three still at home, much the most sociable. After finishing at Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1898, she had returned to Dayton to teach Latin at the new Steele High School, where, Orville noted, she would flunk many of Dayton’s future leaders. As she herself said of those she judged to be “notoriously bad” boys, “I nipped their smartness in the bud.”
Neat and trim, with her gold-rimmed, pince-nez glasses, and dark hair tied back in a bun, she looked every bit the schoolteacher. “Of the sawed-off variety,” as she said, she stood a bit over five feet, and all who knew her knew what a force she was. In a household of three men and one woman, she more than held her own. She was the most vivacious of the family, a tireless, all-season talker, and they all adored her for that. It was she who brought home her college friends and put on parties. Being the nearest in age, she and Orville were particularly close. They had the same birthday, August 19, and they had both been born there in the same house.
Bothered more by human failings than were her brothers, Katharine could turn “wrathy.” Orville’s practicing on the mandolin could set her off in grand fashion. “He sits around and picks that thing until I can hardly stay in the house,” she complained to their father. “You have a good mind and a good heart,” he would tell her. Still he worried. “I am especially anxious that you cultivate modest feminine manners and control your temper, for temper is a hard master.”
To their friends they were Will, Orv, and Katie. Among themselves Wilbur was Ullam; Orville, Bubbo or Bubs; and Katharine, Sterchens, a variation of the German word Schwesterchen, meaning “little sister.” Two brothers older than the three at home—Reuchlin and Lorin—were married and had families of their own. Reuchlin had moved to a farm in Kansas. Lorin, a bookkeeper, with his wife, Netta, and their four children, Milton, Ivonette, Leontine, and Horace, lived just around the corner from 7 Hawthorn Street. That both Lorin and Reuchlin had kept moving from job to job, trying to make ends meet for their families, appears to have given Wilbur and Orville further reason to remain single.
Their deceased mother, Susan Koerner Wright, had been born in Virginia, the daughter of a German wagon maker, and brought west as a child. Her children described her as highly intelligent, affectionate, and painfully shy. It was said that on her first visit to a grocery store after her marriage, when asked to whom the items should be delivered, she forgot her new name. But she was also cheerful and keen-witted, and to her family a “regular genius” in that she could make anything, and toys especially, even a sled, “as good as a store kind.
She was the most understanding woman [wrote Katharine]. She recognized something unusual in Will and Orv, though she loved us all. She never would destroy one thing the boys were trying to make. Any little thing they left around in her way she picked up and put on a shelf in the kitchen.
The mechanical aptitude of “the boys,” they all knew, came directly from their mother, quite as much as Orville’s shyness. Her death, from tuberculosis in 1889, had been the worst blow the family had ever known.
Bishop Milton Wright was a devoted father abundantly supplied with strong opinions and words to the wise, a middle-sized, dignified figure with a full, gray patriarchal beard, but no mustache, who liked to comb his thin gray hair most carefully over the top of his bald head. As with Wilbur, his characteristic “grave countenance” was not necessarily the best way to judge his mood of the moment or how he viewed life.
He had been born in a log cabin in Indiana in 1828 and had grown up with frontier ways and values. Though little is known about his mother, Catherine, his father, Dan Wright, Jr., the son of a farmer and Revolutionary War veteran, had been a hero in the boy’s eyes. “He was grave in countenance, collected in his manners, hesitating in his speech, but very accurate,” by Milton’s account. He was an unyielding abstainer, which was rare on the frontier, a man of rectitude and purpose—all of which could have served as a description of Milton himself and Wilbur and Orville as well.
At age nineteen, Milton had joined the United Brethren Church in Christ, a Protestant denomination. He preached his first sermon at twenty-two and was ordained at twenty-four. Though he took several courses in a small college run by the church, he was not a college graduate. Founded before the Civil War, the United Brethren Church was ad...

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Citation styles for The Wright Brothers

APA 6 Citation

McCullough, D. (2015). The Wright Brothers ([edition unavailable]). Simon & Schuster. Retrieved from (Original work published 2015)

Chicago Citation

McCullough, David. (2015) 2015. The Wright Brothers. [Edition unavailable]. Simon & Schuster.

Harvard Citation

McCullough, D. (2015) The Wright Brothers. [edition unavailable]. Simon & Schuster. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. [edition unavailable]. Simon & Schuster, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.