Besides Science Fiction and Fantasy, my favorite type of books are histories. Sometimes historical fiction, like Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt and Michael Sharra’s Killer Angels, which became the movie Gettysburg. Sometimes alternative histories like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South. But more often than those I love reading a good story about a true historical moment. Titles I’ve really enjoyed include Longitude by Dava Sobel, as well as Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley.
I’ve noticed my tendency in the past to gravitate towards histories that revolve around wars. Like many people, I suppose I am taken by these obvious and violent turning points in history, and the technological developments that arise from those ashes. World War 1 alone saw the rapid development of the airplane from its nascent beginnings as little more than slow-flying crates, to deadly machines that rained death down on cities. It saw the creation and deployment of the world’s first tanks, the invention of hydrophones, aircraft carriers, and the first pilotless drones, not to mention sanitary napkins for women (yes, that’s right; French nurses quickly figured out the new style of cellulose bandages could be used for other things).
As I progressed on my World War 1 novel, I wanted to capture some of the spirit of the time. A time of discovery and a shrinking of the world, when anything was possible even by the most humble of person. Adventure, pioneer spirit, and a view that war would soon be overcome and the world would live in peace (terribly disabused by the world wars to come). As I dug around for history books, I found David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers available for download as an audiobook. As a bonus, it was narrated by the author himself. If you’ve ever watched the Ken Burns’ civil war documentary series, you’ll be familiar with his voice since he was the narrator for that as well. And he has the perfect voice that suits such narrative style, comfortable and warm, a little worn, but one that always keeps you interested in the material. It was a book that had been on my Amazon wish list for a long time, so I added it to my phone for listening on my commutes.
The material is, as usual for McCullough, very detailed. I learned a great many new things I didn’t know about the brothers, but more importantly I learned about their family. Their father, a Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, traveled extensively while they were young, and the family moved constantly, not settling in Dayton until they were nearing high school age. They had two older siblings who were married with families and had moved away. Most importantly, I learned of Katharine, their younger sister and the youngest child of bishop Wright, who was to be a constant help and comfort to them for many, many years. Katharine served as cheerleader, confidante, friend, celebrity along with her brothers, and even nurse to the two of them. Their relationship was such that it might perhaps be said that they never needed to marry for they had all the love they required (and I mean that in a brotherly/sisterly way only).
The book covers their entire lives, but the bulk of it takes place during the critical time from their first forays into business with a printing press (and later the famous bicycle shop) up until Wilbur’s death in 1912. There follows an epilogue that details how each remaining family member spent their remaining years. Though Orville and Katharine were estranged for many years after she married – Orville viewing this as a betrayal of him and his need to have her assistance close at hand – there is no doubt at all that her involvement with their scientific inquiries into controlled flight is what made it possible for them to persevere over the years it took to make their flyers and demonstrate them to the world.
And this was truly science, not crackpots who lucked onto something. The brothers undertook rigorous experimentation and sought the most modern information they could get on flight from the researchers of the time. Their efforts led to long-term friendships with such luminaries as Octave Chanute, as well as many of their competing pioneer aviators in Europe. They researched vigorously, applied logic, tried wind tunnel tests, and questioned everything that was “known” as truth in flying to reach their own conclusions. And it paid off handsomely for them in the long run, though I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the one thing the two brothers craved more than anything was respect and appreciation for what they had done. Certainly the money was a fine bonus and they were happy to make a lucrative amount with their invention. But the years of controversy that followed the death of Wilbur, and the Smithsonian’s own efforts in discrediting the brothers as the first to fly a heavier-than-air machine in favor of Samuel Langley, whose own efforts with a steam powered device had ended in ignominous failure not once, but twice, and at considerable cost to the American government, where certainly what upset Orville most. The brothers wanted the credit for their discoveries more than riches. But Curtis Martin was allowed to make major modifications to Langley’s machine in secret, and after a few test flights was able to “prove” Langley’s device was first and the crashes were due to failure of its catapult system. It was not until decades later that the error was created and the Wright’s given due credit for their efforts.
This is really a wonderful book, made all the better by listening to the author’s soothing voice and obvious engagement with the material. A story of ingenuity and perseverance made all the more fascinating by being true. I’m giving The Wright Brothers ten out of ten Reynold’s Wraps, and highly recommend it. If you like history, particularly American history, and enjoy diving into topics more deeply, this is the type of book you’ll love.