Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The Wright Brothers
David McCullough Simon & Schuster, May 2015
What a family! McCullough draws a picture, not just of Orville and Wilbur, but of their sister Katherine, and father ‘Bishop’, who are a very driven clan, sure of their principles, and extremely industrious. As the blurb says, this is “the human side of the Wright Brothers’ story”. The family archive is rich – McCullough has drawn deeply from this well. Once the brothers have left their Dayton base for the Outer Banks, correspondence with home is frequent, and it is very valuable that this copious correspondence has survived. Which begs the question of how will the chroniclers of the inventors of the 21st century report and judge the work 100 years hence, in a world of (ephemeral) e-mail correspondence?
It is striking that the world of aviation was largely set in motion by a pair of brothers whose technical background was only that of bicycle mechanics (and designers). Neither had a college degree (although their sister did). But, at the debut of the 20th century they were operating in a period of immense technical change: the automobile had just arrived, for example. The intellectual energy was almost palpable.
Perhaps inevitably for a book with an American background, the contribution of Sir George Cayley is swiftly glossed over. Almost exactly a century before the Wright Brothers, this Yorkshireman had set down many accurate aeronautical principles, and succeeded in launching a man-carrying glider. The malign influence of the American Langley is however made clear, and it is amazing the level of funds he extracted from the Smithsonian Institute, and how this Luddite body shunned the Wright Brothers during their formative years.
From almost every page seeps the single-minded and logical endeavour of Orville and Wilbur. They formed a creative symbiosis. Their strong principles stood them in good stead when first their experiments had the usual set-backs, and later when public adulation could have turned their heads. They created their own camp amongst the desolate sand dunes at Kitty Hawk (and would be astonished by how it had become urbanised by 2016). Conditions were very harsh, yet the Spartan life did not seem to deter them, but simply sharpened their focus.
Unlike some inventors they had an early vision of the commercial opportunities for their craft. This took them to France, and it is little surprise to this aviator that French customs did their best to wreck the first Wright Flyer to pass through their hands! That the European military were faster to appreciate the merits of aviation than their US counterparts is handy given that the latter entered WW1 a little late.
The brothers’ sole female support was their sister, and that this relationship bordered on the unhealthy is shown by Orville’s reaction when she finally announced (at the age of 58!) that she was betrothed. Wilbur had by this time died at the early age of 45.
Having not read any other biographies of these remarkable men, I know not how much of McCullough’s work adds to our knowledge. There is an extensive bibliography, and, as mentioned earlier, he has had access to extensive archives. We gain a vivid picture of the men. However there is little coverage of their technological progress. One longs to know more about what obstacles they encountered, and how they solved them. One nagging question for example: in their earlier flights in France, McCullough describes new maximum speeds achieved. Yet how did they measure airspeed? And what were the downsides of their reliance on wing-warping for lateral control?
Accepting that limitation, McCullough’s book is absorbing.