Adventures in Bookland: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
There was a time when flying, rather than resembling being squeezed into a toothpaste tube and passed through the sky in a metal tube, was not even an adventure: it was widely regarded as an impossible dream. Even among those people who thought it possible, its realisation would be based on extravagant funding and a very sizeable private purse. It was a business for the wealthy gentlemen amateurs of the Edwardian era.
So it’s no real surprise that when two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio (otherwise known as Nowheresville, USA) said that they had developed the world’s first powered flying maching, not only did no one believe them, barely anyone even noticed. Now, at least there was the excuse that Kitty Hawk, where these bicycle mechanics did their first flights, was an isolated place, a long sand bar on the east coast of the USA far from most places and difficult to get to. But even when the brothers brought their planes back to Dayton and started flying in a field not far from their home, the world still did not pick up the extraordinary events – and achievements – taking place there. After all, what of interest happened in Ohio?
David McCullough, in the key insight that makes this book so compelling, realises that the story of the Wright Brothers invention and development of the world’s first flying machines was, more than anything else, a story of moral courage and perseverance, of two extraordinary men – and their extraordinary family – pursuing a vision despite disbelief and disinterest until, finally, it became impossible for the world to ignore what these two country hicks had achieved. McCullough covers the story of the extraordinary technical innovations and inventions made by the brothers in enough detail for the reader to realise something of what the accomplished – inventing wind tunnels for testing aerofoils and the crucial insight that control of an aircraft was the key issue to solve rather than just getting it into the air are just two of these – but he never bogs the story down in these details. What drives it are Orville and Wilbur themselves: first, their desire to devise and improve their flying machine until it became a genuinely reliable flying machine, and then their quest to vindicate themselves in the eyes of the world and, being businessmen, get due recompense for all their work.
It’s a great and inspiring work, and a fitting tribute to two extraordinary men. We can’t hold it against them that commercial flying has become what it has.