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The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

12 April, 2021 - 10 min read


I. Brief Summary

A classic American story on innovation, grit and class. David McCullough fully immersed himself in the past to paint an accurate picture of Wright brothers and their environment. The invention of flyer came from deliberate work of watching birds fly, carrying out trial and error experiments and documenting their learnings. They were very resourceful and the final cost of flyer came out to be fraction of what others had spent. They wrote letters to experts which then later became their cheerleaders and friends. There were many including newspapers who didn't believe in them, but the Wright brothers were patient enough with both criticism and feedback. The best quote I took away from this story was “The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power.” The book is filled with wonder and wisdom.

II. Big Ideas

  • The origin of Wright brothers started in the industrial town of Dayton, Ohio, at the turn of the 20th century. Both were driven by family values which was showcased throughout the book. Their dad was a Bishop and mother was a fix-it woman. Wilbur and Orville credit their mother for their engineering talents. Katharine, who was a younger sister played a vital role to parenting both brothers. I think the title of the book should've been The Wright Brothers & Sister Katherine. Both brothers grew up in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. But there were plenty of books to read which Wright brothers did. Intellectual interests and curiosity became second nature due to this upbringing. Sundays were spent on taking breaks from work. Both brothers enjoyed things outside of building a plane. Both loved music—Wilbur played the harmonica, Orville, the mandolin.
  • Wilbur is 4 years older than Orville, but they were inseparable. Both brothers were two peas in a pod. They worked on problems together. If Wilbur carried wisdom, Orville was a mechanical genius. Both got basic high school education. Wilbur enjoyed math and science in high school and might have gone to Yale if he hadn’t gotten injured playing hockey. Orville was more playful and less studious, but he had ambition enough to start a local newspaper after high school. When newspaper business failed, he and Orville start a bicycle repair shop and a small production bicycle operation. Katharine took a position as a high school Latin teacher after graduation.
  • Wilbur sent a letter to the Smithsonian Institute for literature asking for resources about the science of flying and history of attempts at human flight. They risked their lives for air. Their craziness was questioned during every step of the journey. They spent hours and years practicing their mechanical flyer. They watched birds, read aeronautics literature, consulted experts and practiced many hours to get the mechanics right. Both brothers would never fly together because if the flyer were to crash, they didn't want to take the risk of both getting killed together. Orville ended up getting severely hurt, but managed to carry out flights later. They both demonstrated finest engineering skills without having any engineering background.

    “My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable...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.

  • In 1903, they finally accomplished a successful flight. But it would be years before anyone would get to see it. They wanted to work with US government but US had many failures that they gave up on this mission. They eventually moved on and decided to work with French. Once the world heard about what the Wright brothers have done, US government finally got on board. Wright brothers became famous all over the world, drawing attention in thousands and hundreds of thousands. They let the world celebrate what they had accomplished but was also becoming taxing. They demonstrated flights in France, Italy, Germany, England and US.

III. Quotes

  • The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power.
  • It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea and they had faith.
  • What are kids going to turn into if they ride their bikes around all day instead of reading books?
  • What the two had in common above all was a unity of purpose and unyielding determination. They had set themselves on a “mission.”
  • “The strongest impression on gets of Wilbur Wright,” an old schoolmate said, “is of a man who lives largely in a world on his own.”
  • Wilbur also, it was agreed, had “unusual presence”, and remained imperturbable under almost any circumstance, “never rattled,” his father was proud to say.
  • From ancient times and into the Middle Ages, man had dreamed of taking to the sky, of soaring into the blue like the birds.
  • ...it began for them with a toy from France, a small helicopter brought home by their father, Bishop Milton Wright, a great believer in the educational value of toys.
  • Bishop Wright, a lifelong lover of books, heartily championed the limitless value of reading.
  • As said, his was a mind that never slowed down. “He talked very freely to his children on all subjects,” Orville would say, “except money making, a matter to which he gave little consideration.”
  • “Every mind should be true to itself—should think, investigate and conclude for itself,” wrote Ingersoll. It was the influence of Ingersoll apparently that led the brothers to give up regular attendance at church, a change the Bishop seems to have accepted without protest.
  • Years later, a friend told Orville that he and his brother would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantages could advance in the world. “But it isn’t true,” Orville responded emphatically, “to say we had no special advantages . . . the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.”
  • I do not think I am specially fitted for success in any commercial pursuit even if I had proper personal and business influences to assist me. I might make a living, but I doubt whether I would ever do much more than this. Intellectual effort is a pleasure to me and I think I would be better fitted for reasonable success in some of the professions than in business. — Wilbur Wright
  • In business it is the aggressive man, who continually has his eye on his own interest, who succeeds [he wrote]. Business is merely a form of warfare in which each combatant strives to get the business away from his competitors and at the same time keep them from getting what he already has. No man has ever been successful in business who was not aggressive, self-assertive and even a little bit selfish perhaps. There is nothing reprehensible in an aggressive disposition, so long as it is not carried to excess, for such men make the world and its affairs move...I entirely agree that the boys of the Wright family are all lacking in determination and push. That is the very reason that none of us have been or will be more than ordinary businessmen. We have all done reasonably well, better in fact than the average man perhaps, but not one of us has as yet made particular use of the talent in which he excels other men. That is why our success has been only moderate. We ought not to have been businessmen....There is always a danger that a person of this disposition will, if left to depend upon himself, retire into the first corner he falls into and remain there all his life struggling for bare existence (unless some earthquake throws him out into a more favorable location), where if put on the right path with proper special equipment, he would advance far. Many men are better fitted for improving chances offered them than in turning up the chances themselves. — Wilbur Wright
  • ...the moral of the story being, “Stick to your sphere.” In no way did any of this discourage or deter Wilbur and Orville Wright, any more than the fact that they had had no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.
  • “Learning the secret of flight from a bird,” Orville would say, “was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician.”
  • Hard workers were greatly admired and in the words of John T. Daniels, the Wrights were “two of the workingest boys” ever seen, “and when they worked, they worked. . . . They had their whole heart and soul in what they were doing.”
  • The speech Wilbur delivered—modestly titled “Some Aeronautical Experiments”—would be quoted again and again for years to come. Published first in the society’s journal, it appeared in full or part in The Engineering Magazine, Scientific American, the magazine Flying, and the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution. In the words of a latter-day aeronautics specialist at the Library of Congress, the speech was “the Book of Genesis of the twentieth-century Bible of Aeronautics.”
  • Rare is the collection that provides so much depth and range, and all in such detail. In a day and age when, unfortunately, so few write letters or keep a diary any longer, the Wright Papers stand as a striking reminder of a time when that was not the way and of the immense value such writings can have in bringing history to life. Seldom ever did any of the Wrights—father, sons, daughter—put anything down on paper that was dull or pointless or poorly expressed. And much that they said to each other, and only to each other, was of great importance. In all, the family letters in the Library’s collection number in excess of a thousand. In addition, there are their large scrapbooks, a gold mine of insights.
  • “The sister of men who have won the admiration of all of us, even to the birds of the air.”
  • On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in western Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 Flyer.
  • All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one from being a burden to others.
  • It is not my custom to voice my complaints, but this business of never being ready has been a nightmare to me for more than a year.