Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers
David McCullough

David McCullough is a wonderful writer. The Wright Brothers is a wonderful book. There just isn't enough of it.

The Wright Brothers is biography that reads like a novel. That's no accident; McCullough treats the brothers as his protagonists, and there's scarcely a scene that doesn't involve one of them (and the few exceptions mostly feature their sister Katharine). This book is the story arc of their lives. It's all here: the humble beginnings, the talent that flowers in obscurity, the dedication and courage to an impossible cause, the difficulties, and the eventual triumph. 

It's good to see these two men get some of the credit they deserve. Wilbur Wright was unquestionably an genius, and Orville was an extraordinary builder and designer. Alas, there are some writers--mostly European--who unjustly but obstinately champion other early aviators, especially Alberto Santos-Dumont. Some of those writers apparently feel that by doing thousands of meticulous trials, including literally writing the book on wing shapes using a home-made wind tunnel, those bloody lower-class Americans were cheating (while the aristocratic Santos-Dumont was swanning about the boulevards of Paris like a proper gentleman inventor).

So I loved The Wright Brothers; I recommend it without reservation; but it's incomplete, nonetheless.

In the first place, it's quite light on technical details. I realize that it's a book for the general intelligent reader, but its hard to get a sense of just how major were the Wrights' contributions without this information.

In the second place: in Truman and John Adams, David McCullough showed a tendency to be a little too forgiving of his heroes. He does the same here, I think. Reading this book, you'd never really guess that the very qualities that made the Wrights such superb inventors--confidence, perseverance, an unquestionable faith in themselves, and a healthy lack of reverence for the say-so of others--made them very poor businessmen. There are barely hints of the ongoing feuds and lawsuits that consumed the Wrights' business ventures, or of their repeated frustrations in trying to actually sell their invention.

I will grant that, on my reading of the evidence, the Wrights were generally more sinned against than sinning--particularly in the case of the Smithsonian Institution, which acted rather dishonorably towards them for many years. And yet ... this is a part of the history, even though it doesn't really fit with McCullough's story structure.

So: read the book. Give Wilbur and Orville the credit they deserve.  But be aware that there's more to the story.

(The "more to the story" can be found in a number of books. I particularly recommend Tom Crouch's The Bishop's Boys, a thorough, sympathetic, definitive, and very readable biography. Lawrence Goldstone's Birdmen is a good overview of the post-Kitty-Hawk imbroglios that the Wrights waded into.)

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