Sorry to be lagging in writing posts, but I am catching up on my reading. I just finished a wonderful book by David McCullough, one of my favorite writers, entitled The Wright Brothers (Simon and Schuster, 2015). He is not only an outstanding story teller, but an amazing researcher, although I expect he has help in his research because he typically gives credit to several people in the Library of Congress. But having won two Pulitzer prizes and twice received the National Book Award, he probably deserves it.
This book is an in depth look at the Wright brothers (Wilbur and Orville— there were two other brothers and a sister Katherine , who became a major supporter and cheer leader), their successful quest for flight, and their friends, family, and others who supported them, as well as those who competed with them. It is an American success story, and, in fact, after they became world famous and people would ask them how they did so, they would tell people to grow up in Ohio in a good family.
The difficulties they overcame were many, including Orville killing his passenger and almost himself in a demonstration flight. People had wanted to fly like birds for most of recorded history, and at the time of the Wright brother’s effort, there were many people (Lillienthal, Moullard, Chanute, Langley, Cayley, Maxim, Bell, Edison) who were working on the problem, and many people applying for patents on flying machines, most so outrageous that they became a mainstay of humor, but the majority of people in the world simply felt that humans were not meant to fly, and those seeking the ability were perhaps a bit nuts. In the midst of this, the Wright brothers, by then proprietors of a bicycle shop, quietly set about to solve the problem—no wealth, no government support, no college, no brilliant insight, no desire to become rich and famous, just an obsession for flight and long hours of hard work. I could somewhat identify with them, because their life was somewhat like my grandmother prescribed, when sayings such as “the devil finds work for idle hands” and “people who don’t take care of their (garden, farm, horse, house, truck, etc) don’t deserve one” abounded and were laid on kids like me who were found lying in the sun. In fact their very supportive father was a minister, and later a bishop in their church.
I also identified with their ability to work with their hands as well as their mind. There is a quote in the book by a local resident after they built their “home” on Kitty Hawk, a desolate area far from Dayton chosen because of its constant wind. which is “They could do anything they put their hands to. They built their own camp, they took an old carbide can and made a stove of it; they took a bicycle and geared the thing up so that they cold ride it on the sand. They did their own cooking and washing and they were good cooks too.” My kind of guys (although my wife faults me on washing, but hey California is in a drought).
But not only were they wonderful people, but from an engineering standpoint they did everything right, even though not educated as engineers. There was little usable theory, but they learned what existed and what had been tried, and started from there. Their competitors in the world were trying to concoct theory and arguing with each other, but only making simple fairly uncontrollable unpowered kites and gliders and flying them very little. The Wright Brothers started with a kite, gradually improved it until it could carry them, and flew in the result as much as possible. They continued after they added an engine, built from scratch in a short period by Charlie Taylor, a mechanic friend of the Wrights. The engine added a series of failures, but the process of fixing the problems, improving the machine, and flying continued, in spite of minor and major crashes and other setbacks. This constant testing and improving reminded me of my days working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, because that is how wonders such as the Curiosity Martian Rover are produced. And a major advantage that the Wright Brothers had on December 17th, 1903, when they made their famous flight (actually they made four of them that day, the last one some 850 feet), was their skill at flying, because each of them had spent many days learning to control their primitive machines and a total of four years achieving this goal.
This experience and approach to testing and improvement made extending the range of Wright “flying machines” straight forward, so that five years later, the brothers won the newly-minted Michelin Cup with a flight of 2 hours and 20 minutes. They were, by then, touring the world, flying all day to the delight of massive crowds, and taking royalty for rides. They did become rich and famous, but because they wanted to fly like birds, not because they particularly wanted to be rich and famous (although they didn’t mind being in that category.)
It is a feel good book, shedding light on how one of the many advances in technology in the early 20th century happened, and how many still do —through dogged determination and evolution rather than from one brilliant idea. The only thing that depressed me about the book was how much better McCullough can write than I can.