Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Wright Brothers

If one message comes out clearly in David McCullough’s latest book, Wright Brothers, it is that Wilbur and Orville had balls! They risked their lives trying to master controlled, powered flight, and persisted through betrayal, crashes, failure, ridicule, and skepticism to become the first humans to soar with the birds. Honestly, I knew very little about these inventive brothers prior to reading McCullough’s book – or, I should more accurately state, listened to it on audible. The best feature of the audio book was McCullough’s narration.

The most startling thing for me in this book is that the brothers Wright had very little mechanical background.
They tinkered with things, but had no experience building complex machines or with engines prior to building one from scratch for their airplane. Showing their inexperience, the first one cracked the day they made it, and they had to wait several weeks before receiving another aluminum block from ALCOA to manufacture a second motor.

They knew almost nothing about flight when they started their experiments. Of course, it was a concept in its very infancy, but others around the globe had been working on it. The death of German pioneer aviator Otto Lilienthal in 1896 captivated the Wrights. It seems ironic that a fatality in Europe would draw two bicycle shop owners in Ohio into the risky venture of flight. Having resolved to enter the aviation race, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution to request all the information they could provide. Later they contacted the Weather Bureau to find a perfect location to test their flying machine. They wanted a windy, sandy, out-of-the-way place, which is how they wound up in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Experiments with gliders in Kitty Hawk convinced the brothers Wright that all that had been written before about the “science” of flight had been total bunk. Throwing out the book of knowledge as it existed; they had to reformulate almost every theory about flying. From practical experiments at Kitty Hawk and more theoretical work with a noisy wind tunnel simulator that they created in their Dayton bicycle shop, they discovered that the wings and how they were configured, shaped, and manipulated were the most important aspect of flight. This was their critical contribution to aviation.    

Armed with this information, they returned to Kitty Hawk in 1903 and made their historic flight that is immortalized on the North Carolina license plate, among other places. It was only 12 seconds! With some modifications, they managed to sustain a flight of 59 seconds before packing it up for the year and returning to Dayton. The world took no notice of their accomplishment.  It was their public flights in Ohio, France, New York, Germany, Italy, and around Washington, D.C. between 1904 and 1911 that drew large crowds, press acclimation, and established their fame as pioneer aviators. Along the way they established records for distance and speed, took the first passenger, and later took the oldest person as a passenger (their 80+ year old dad), and the first female (their sister), as well as some celebrities of the day. Less fortunate, they also were involved in the first aviation passenger fatality when Orville crashed one of their flying machines at Fort Myer, Virginia in 1908. The passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge died, and this led to the first accident investigation in aviation history. Orville spent months in recovery.  

The Wright brothers had no wealthy backers. They spent about $1,000 of their own money developing a flying machine. Compare this to Samuel Pierpont Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who enjoyed the backing of the U.S government. Langely spent nearly $70,000 with few tangible results. While the Wrights developed their flier in the obscure setting of Kitty Hawk, N.C., Langely’s public experiments around the nation’s capital generated headlines. McCullough suggests the possibility that the War Department was slow to work with the Wrights (other governments were much more interested) because they felt burned by their experience with Langely.

McCullough shows that the Wrights were products of their environment. He describes how entrepreneurial, inventive, and industrial atmosphere of Dayton shaped them. More importantly, he masterfully tells the story of their family life. Their father and sister are almost as big a part of this story as Orville and Wilbur. Thus McCullough gives us a valuable glimpse into Gilded Age life. Wilbur died of typhus at 45 in 1912. Orville died at age 77 in 1948, but had stopped flying in 1918 because of the injuries he had sustained in the Ft. Myer crash.

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