The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first flight of a motorized aircraft. For 12 seconds, the aircraft left the ground before touching down 120 feet away.  By the time he died in 1948, he had seen the dedication of a Navy Aircraft carrier named the USS Wright, jet propulsion, the introduction of the rocket, the breaking of the sound barrier in 1947. It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the Wright brother’s accomplishments.


In this masterful book, David McCullough tells a somewhat familiar, yet altogether fresh tale of the remarkable lives of Orville and Wilbur Wright and the handful of people who accompanied this remarkable chapter in human achievement.

Wilbur Wright died at the young age of 45. It is unclear who of the two first dreamt of the plan that carried them through the shirtsleeve work that became their legacy, but Wilbur was the one who set it in meaningful motion. The brothers were raised by voracious readers, especially their father who encouraged his children likewise.  Mccullough writes of his library

“Those works he considered “very serious,” on theology mostly, were in his bedroom, the rest, the majority, proudly in evidence in the sitting room in a tall, glass- fronted bookcase. There could be found the works of Dickens, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, a complete set of the works of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Virgil, Plutarch’s Lives , Milton’s Paradise Lost , Boswell’s Life of Johnson , Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , and Thucydides. There were books on natural history, American history, a six- volume history of France, travel, The Instructive Speller , Darwin’s On the Origin of Species , plus two full sets of encyclopedias.”

After much thought, study and imaginative dreaming, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian, his letter beginning

“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. I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language. I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.”

To their credit, the Smithsonian provided a large supply of materials on ballooning and gliders and he and Orville both began studying in earnest.

As they later wrote, “The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power.” In this age of dizzying technological advancement, much of which is done in the frantic race to meaningless wealth, we can only hope their spirit lives on.