The Wright Brothers - book cover
Engineering & Transportation
  • Publisher : Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition
  • Published : 03 May 2016
  • Pages : 336
  • ISBN-10 : 1476728755
  • ISBN-13 : 9781476728759
  • Language : English

The Wright Brothers

The #1 New York Times bestseller from David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize-the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly-Wilbur and Orville Wright.

On a winter day in 1903, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two brothers-bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio-changed history. But it would take the world some time to believe that the age of flight had begun, with the first powered machine carrying a pilot.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were men of exceptional courage and determination, and of far-ranging intellectual interests and ceaseless curiosity. When they worked together, no problem seemed to be insurmountable. Wilbur was unquestionably a genius. Orville had such mechanical ingenuity as few had ever seen. That they had no more than a public high school education and little money never stopped them in their mission to take to the air. Nothing did, not even the self-evident reality that every time they took off, they risked being killed.

In this "enjoyable, fast-paced tale" (The Economist), master historian David McCullough "shows as never before how two Ohio boys from a remarkable family taught the world to fly" (The Washington Post) and "captures the marvel of what the Wrights accomplished" (The Wall Street Journal). He draws on the extensive Wright family papers to profile not only the brothers but their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them. Essential reading, this is "a story of timeless importance, told with uncommon empathy and fluency…about what might be the most astonishing feat mankind has ever accomplished…The Wright Brothers soars" (The New York Times Book Review).

Editorial Reviews

"A story of timeless importance, told with uncommon empathy and fluency. . . . A story, well told, about what might be the most astonishing feat mankind has ever accomplished. . . . The Wright Brothers soars." -- Daniel Okrent ― The New York Times Book Review

"David McCullough has etched a brisk, admiring portrait of the modest, hardworking Ohioans who designed an airplane in their bicycle shop and solved the mystery of flight on the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C. He captures the marvel of what the Wrights accomplished and, just as important, the wonder felt by their contemporaries. . . . Mr. McCullough is in his element writing about seemingly ordinary folk steeped in the cardinal American virtues-self-reliance and can-do resourcefulness." -- Roger Lowenstein ― The Wall Street Journal

"[McCullough] takes the Wrights' story aloft. . . . Concise, exciting, and fact-packed. . . . Mr. McCullough presents all this with dignified panache, and with detail so granular you may wonder how it was all collected." -- Janet Maslin ― The New York Times

"McCullough's magical account of [the Wright Brothers'] early adventures - enhanced by volumes of family correspondence, written records, and his own deep understanding of the country and the era - shows as never before how two Ohio boys from a remarkable family taught the world to fly." -- Reeve Lindbergh ― The Washington Post

"David McCullough's The Wright Brothers is a story about two brothers and one incredible moment in American history. But it's also a story that resonates with anyone who believes deeply in the power of technology to change lives – and the resistance some have to new innovations." -- Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google

"An outstanding saga of the lives of two men who left such a giant footprint on our modern age." ― Booklist (starred review)

"[An] enjoyable, fast-paced tale. . . . A fun, fast ride." ― The Economist

"[A] fluently rendered, skillfully focused study. . . . An educational and inspiring biography of seminal American innovators." ― Kirkus Reviews

"McCullough's usual warm, evocative prose makes for an absorbing narrative; he conveys both the drama of the birth of flight and the homespun genius of America's golden age of innovation." ― Publishers Weekly

Readers Top Reviews

Detailed chronology of the Wright brothers' development of the Flyer and how it came to worldwide attention. Quite a lot of primary material quoted which sometimes slowed the tempo, but highly readable and well researched. The personal background of the Wright brothers as bicycle makers from Ohio and how they became early aviators is intriguing. What was missing for me was development of how they designed and engineered the aircraft - wing warping for instance isn't explained in any detail but was a key invention, and their extensive research on aerodynamics, stability and flight control is given little weight. Very enjoyable as a piece of aviation history but not if you wanted to understand how they achieved innovation in aviation.
R Helen
David McCullough is just a great writer. He can turn any mundane topic into something fascinating. And he did it again with "The Wright Brothers." I don't really have an interest in aviation and I'm not sure why I even picked up the book, except that I figured if McCullough wrote it, it must be good. And it is. McCullough tells the story of two all-American boys who, through an incredible amount of work, effort, and ambition, invented the first real airplane. And they did this with just an amateur knowledge of science and technology. The story is truly inspiring. Two things surprised me, though. One was the anti-semitism that their sister expressed when hearing of Hart Berg, the reprentative of Flint and Company, who would eventually reprensent them, and two, was their fates in the end. Somehow both these elements seemed out of character. The Wright Brothers, themselves, were peculiar, however. It seems neither ever had as much as a girlfriend, at least from the story McCullough tells, and one has to wonder why that was. They lived at home their entire lives, along with their sister, who likewise seems to have avoided the opposite sex for most of her life. McCullough doesn't dwell on this, but it does seem a bit strange. But I suppose genius is often found in madness. But it's a truly fascinating, incredibly American tale, and well worth a read.
White Knight
Brilliant book. Reads like a thriller and science textbook combined. These brothers who built and sold bicycles, invented the right curve over the top of the wing, the correct angle and shape of a propellor for wind (unlike others who focused on water propellors) AND invented the first wind tunnel to test all of this. Fly was so dangerous that the decided never to fly together so that one brother could continue the work even if the other was killed trying. (And one brother was badly crippled). They were the perfect test pilots, designing changes and testing them, in peril of their lives.
H. Lawyusuf
The writing is well done and I appreciate the added insights on the personal side, but as an engineer there are certain parts of the story that simply have to be told to really appreciate what they did. He does touch on some of it but are we not owed: 1. an explanation of their discovering the basic errors in atmospheric density at sea level. 2. the setup of the wind tunnels that allowed them to show most aerodynamic data was incorrect. 3. the explanation as they arrived at it of the interaction between roll and yaw and pitch in turning an aircraft. 4. the mathematics involved in the first derivation of how a propeller works. 5. a contrast between the first three and last fourth of the first flights. The point is these guys did things that are worthy of Noble prizes and risked their lives in the process and succeeded at minimum costs, and the author touches on that well when he describes C. Taylor's feelings he was watching them risk their lives on every flight at Hoffman Prairie, but you can't really appreciate why that is necessary without a deeper grounding in the technical as well as the human side. I am not saying doing an explanation would be easy I am just trying to show how without it the story is simply not grounded in the wondrous accomplishments that make it so wondrous. Their discovery is in every airline flying today and that needs to be shown not simply celebrated. Again I appreciate the personal side but the hard work of explanation of how and why so important is missing.
Ashutosh S. Jogaleka
David McCullough is one of the preeminent American historians of our times, the deft biographer of John Adams and Harry Truman, and in this book he brings his wonderful historical exposition and storytelling skills to the lives of the Wright brothers. So much is known about these men that they have been turned into legends. Legends they were but they were also human, and this is the quality that McCullough is best at showcasing in these pages. The book is a quick and fun read. If I have some minor reservations they are only in the lack of technical detail which could have informed descriptions of some of the Wrights' experiments and the slightly hagiographical tint that McCullough is known to bring to his subjects. I would also have appreciated some more insights into attempts that other people around the world were making in enabling powered flight. Nevertheless, this is after all a popular work, and popular history seldom gets better than under McCullough's pen. The book shines in three aspects. Firstly McCullough who is quite certainly one of the best storytellers among all historians does a great job of giving us the details of the Wrights' upbringing and family. He drives home the importance of the Wrights' emphasis on simplicity, intellectual hunger and plain diligence, hard work and determination. The Wright brothers' father who was a Bishop filled the house with books and learning and never held back their intellectual curiosity. This led to an interest in tinkering in the best sense of the tradition, first with bicycles and then with airplanes. The Wrights' sister Katharine also played an integral part in their lives; they were very close to her and McCullough's account is filled with copious examples of the affectionate, sometimes scolding, always encouraging letters that the siblings wrote to each other. The Wrights' upbringing drives home the importance of family and emotional stability. Secondly, McCullough also brings us the riveting details of their experiments with powered flight. He takes us from their selection of Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a flight venue through their struggles, both with the weather conditions and with the machinery. He tells us how the brothers were inspired by Otto Lillienthal, a brilliant German glider pilot who crashed to his death and by Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley. Chanute was a first-rate engineer who encouraged their efforts while Samuel Langley headed aviation efforts at the Smithsonian and was a rival. The Wrights' difficult life on the sand dunes - with "demon mosquitoes", 100 degree weather and wind storms - is described vividly. First they experimented with the glider, then consequentially with motors. Their successful and historic flight on December 17, 1903 was a testament to their sheer grit, bon homie and technical brilliance. A new age had da...

Short Excerpt Teaser

The Wright Brothers PROLOGUE
From ancient times and into the Middle Ages, man had dreamed of taking to the sky, of soaring into the blue like the birds. One savant in Spain in the year 875 is known to have covered himself with feathers in the attempt. Others devised wings of their own design and jumped from rooftops and towers-some to their deaths-in Constantinople, Nuremberg, Perugia. Learned monks conceived schemes on paper. And starting about 1490, Leonardo da Vinci made the most serious studies. He felt predestined to study flight, he said, and related a childhood memory of a kite flying down onto his cradle.

According to brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, 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. The creation of a French experimenter of the nineteenth century, Alphonse Pénaud, it was little more than a stick with twin propellers and twisted rubber bands, and probably cost 50 cents. "Look here, boys," said the Bishop, something concealed in his hands. When he let go it flew to the ceiling. They called it the "bat."

Orville's first teacher in grade school, Ida Palmer, would remember him at his desk tinkering with bits of wood. Asked what he was up to, he told her he was making a machine of a kind that he and his brother were going to fly someday.