My entire mental schema for the Wright brothers contained a total of 4 facts. I knew that one brother was Orville and one was Wilbur. I knew they built the first airplane capable of flight and that the first flight was made from Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My schema also contained some visuals: a rather sketchy approximation of what that first airplane looked like (it looked like a cross between a box kite and a paper airplane model) and a visual image of the dunes at Kitty Hawk, NC from a visit to the Outer Banks, where my friends showed absolutely no interest in digging deeper into the wonders of flight, focused as they were on the joys of flirtation and looking good in a bathing suit.
But the newest biography called The Wright Brothers by David McCullough got such great press that I, who had always been somewhat fascinated with man’s quest to fly and with the first time this was successfully accomplished, was tempted to stray from fiction. This biography was well worth the detour.
I have seen drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, quite antique, that show wing assemblies that could be strapped to men. These drawings (looking like angel wings) attest to man’s envy of s bird’s ability to soar above the earth, perhaps to the very heavens. The drawings also trace the historical roots of our actual attempts to emulate the birds and lift off from solid ground, free of gravity, into the blue sky.
Wilbur and Orville Wright did not live in Kitty Hawk, NC. They only went there for the dunes and the wind and to study the shore birds that inspired them so strongly. Indeed the ocean winds over the dunes at Kitty Hawk enabled man’s first flight ever on December 13, 1903 and then the first flight caught on film on December 17, 1903. Sustained flights took more time, more tinkering, and more tests; even a few accidents. But those two brothers who came from Dayton, Ohio, from the steady, devout and loving family of a preacher possessed the strong work ethic and the drive that kept them working until they made a plane that could reliably take off, fly and land.
The brothers (Wilbur, older – Orville, younger) were the kind of men who almost always wore suits even when tinkering in their workshop. They got their income from their bicycle shop and when they realized how passionately they wished to invent a machine that could fly, they were able to use the workshop behind the bicycle shop to fashion their flying machine. They immediately grasped the advantages that flying would give America in a war and they asked, unsuccessfully for money from the War Department.
A number of people in America (even at the Smithsonian), in Great Britain, in France were all racing to create a glider with an engine which could sustain flight over time and distance. This pursuit was scientific and the brothers knew their physics. They studied wing design and lift. Secrecy was somewhat important because the men who competed to be first and best were not averse to a bit of what we would classify now as “corporate espionage”. Fortunately for the brothers the others were not as meticulous and did not have the brothers’ gift for the physics of flight. Still there were many legal battles with competitors over patent issues.
Going back to the gritty and very inspiring beginnings of something we take so much for granted in our era of jets and airbuses is good for our souls and David McCullough, however workman-like his account may seem, also takes us “up, up in the air with those glorious men in their flying machines.” Flying has become essential both in warfare and in peace. Whatever would those brothers think of stealth bombers and drones? At any rate, I now consider my Wright brothers’ schema well-plumped with new connections – and that is just one of the reasons I love reading books.