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The Wright Brothers

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Two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize David McCullough tells 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 unknown brothers from Ohio changed history. But it would take the world some time to believe what had happened: the age of flight had begun, with the first heavier-than-air, powered machine carrying a pilot.

Who were these men and how was it that they achieved what they did?

David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, tells the surprising, profoundly American story of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Far more than a couple of unschooled Dayton bicycle mechanics who happened to hit on success, they were men of exceptional courage and determination, and of far-ranging intellectual interests and ceaseless curiosity, much of which they attributed to their upbringing. The house they lived in had no electricity or indoor plumbing, but there were books aplenty, supplied mainly by their preacher father, and they never stopped reading.

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, little money and no contacts in high places, 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 in one of their contrivances, they risked being killed.

In this thrilling book, master historian David McCullough draws on the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including private diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence to tell the human side of the Wright Brothers' story, including the little-known contributions of their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published March 20, 2015

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About the author

David McCullough

134 books9,584 followers
David McCullough was a Yale-educated, two-time recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize (Truman; John Adams) and the National Book Award (The Path Between the Seas; Mornings on Horseback). His many other highly-acclaimed works of historical non-fiction include The Greater Journey, 1776, Brave Companions, The Great Bridge, The Wright Brothers, and The Johnstown Flood. He was honored with the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the National Humanities Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in addition to many other awards and honors. Mr. McCullough lived in Boston, Mass.

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Profile Image for MarilynW.
1,111 reviews2,800 followers
December 3, 2022
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
Narrated by author

I've known of the Wright Brothers for most of my life, of course, but I really never knew very much about them until I listened to this audiobook. This is my first book by David McCullough and my first time hearing his voice. At the start, the reading seems dry but once I became used to McCullough's writing and his voice, I was entranced by the story.

Learning of the closeness and support of the Wright family, despite strong personalities and opinions from many of the members, the importance of family is highlighted. The Wright matriarch, mother of the seven Wright children (two of these children young), was very shy in public but an important motivator in the lives of her children. Bishop Wright and his wife wanted their children to find and cultivate interests in a variety of things and it may have been their mom who cultivated their interest in things mechanical.

The boys grew into men who loved making things and knowing how things worked. They'd take things apart, knowing they could make them even better. They had a very successful bike building business that financed their flying machine obsession. They latched onto what they wanted to create and never let go, loving the trial and error even during complications, failures. and setbacks. These were hard working men who often fought and then usually slogged through their disagreements to reach a better understanding of how to make their visions come true.

I really enjoyed this story about the family life of the Wrights. Once they searched out a place to put their first machine to the test, it was interesting hearing about the rough location and living they had to do as they brainstormed their creations. Never would I have thought mosquitoes would have been such a ben to them. And we get to hear about the first man to survive a plane accident (not in the way you would expect). McCullough's writing and narration made this such an interesting way to learn.

Pub May 5, 2015 by Simon Schuster Audio
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
May 20, 2019
 photo First20Flight_zps91jaommt.jpg The first photo of flight snapped by a man who was taking his first picture ever. The Wright brothers were very careful to document each stage of their development not only with photography, but also with journals.

”The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power.” Wilbur and Orville Wright

They were brothers.

As close as two peas in a pod and you could make it three with Katharine, the little sister who also at times provided the role of mother and first wife to flight. (neither brother ever married) There were two older Wright children, both boys who lead fairly normal decent lives. They grew up in a more traditional home with the mother and the father, but by the time the three younger children came along their mother was not alive to raise them, and their parson father was travelling extensively trying to build up followings in churches all across the nation.

Orville dropped out of high school to start his own newspaper. Wilbur soon joined him. It became the first of many alliances between the brothers, though claiming not to be very good at business, their resume shows something quite different. Despite how close they were their devotion to one another was not always based on harmony.

”Wilbur...believed in ‘a good scrap’. It brought out ‘new ways of looking at things,’ helped ‘round off the corners.’ It was characteristic of all his family, Wilbur said, to be able to see the weak points of anything. This was not always a ‘desirable quality.’ he added, ‘as it makes us too conservative for successful business men, and limits our friendships to a limited circle.’”

If you have strong family ties your need for an extended circle of friends certainly diminishes. Sometimes family does not provide friendship and many of us have to find that solace elsewhere. As I always told my kids it is better to have one really good friend than an extended circle of “friends”. Those “friends” may believe that they are your friends, but I’ve found when the chips are down those “friends” suddenly become “acquaintances” and sometimes very distantly so.

The Wright Brothers may have fought vigorously with each other, but each was a sounding board for the other to clarify their thinking. A good battle would often have them getting together the next morning with each brother switching to the other’s opinion creating yet another skirmish as they tried to prove the other right.

When the bicycle craze began, the brothers were on the leading edge by opening the first shop in Dayton to repair those bicycles. It wasn’t long before they decided they could make a better bike and in the basement of their shop they started making bikes to order. They named them Van Cleve (launched 1896), after an illustrious ancestor of theirs who helped settle Ohio. They were successful business men yet again.

Wilbur first turned his thoughts to flight. He may have followed Orville’s lead into the printing business, but this time Orville was following after Wilbur. It was a true partnership and like the Paul McCartney and John Lennon alliance they took equal credit for all that they created.

First in flight was plural. They flew!

 photo Wright20Brothers_zps0ygnfdib.jpg
Orville on the left was always a bit more dapper than Wilbur on the right. Here they are on the Wright Flyer 1 in 1910.

I’m not going to go into the trials and tribulations that lead to the first powered, controlled flight of an airplane on December 17th, 1903. You’ll have to read the book to find out those details. I will say I was surprised at the length of the process. I thought that after 1903 they were lauded and celebrated, but it actually took much longer than that for the world to take notice of exactly what they accomplished. The French showed much more interest than the American government which was a source of disappointing to the Wright Brothers. I do wonder if H. G. Wells, with his creatively conceived books of the future, was already contributing to the French fascination with flight.

In a reversal of roles from what I expected the Americans were sceptical while the French felt that anything was possible.

It was interesting to me that the venerated Samuel P. Langley of the Smithsonian was competing with the Wright Brothers. He had raised over $70,000 in funds to build his airplane. The Wright Brothers in comparison spent $1,000 building their airplane using only funds raised from profits from their bicycle shop. We do not celebrate Langley as the first to fly so you might be able to ascertain that his expensive prototype did not fly. As the Wright’s heard about the progress of their competitors it never bothered them. They had a vision of where they had to get to and never wavered from their intended course or worried about whether someone else would fly first.

”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.”

They built a concept out of a garage before America even had garages. If Steve Jobs were alive today and had read this book he would certainly have identified with the ability of the Wright Brothers to take an idea and refuse to let it go. One thing we know is that all over World there are people tinkering in their basements, garages, and on their living room floors. They are taking wisps of ideas and turning them into reality. As they drive to work, as they sit at a desk at work, as they turn a bolt on an assembly line, they are dreaming about contributing something new to humanity.

 photo Wright20Brothers202_zpsuajce3jg.jpg
Walking in tandem.

The Wright Brothers did become wealthy, but certainly not as wealthy as they could have if they had been showmen or if money had really been the be all and end all of learning how a man can fly. They were focused on the HOW, fame and fortune would take care of itself. I couldn’t help but admire them and be inspired by their bred in the bone entrepreneurship that took them from a printing press to a bicycle shop to conquering the sky.

”On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern 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.”

To see all my book and movie reviews visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,006 reviews36k followers
March 10, 2016
"The Wright Brothers", by David McCullough, is FANTASTIC!!!
I was 'hooked' instantly listening to the audiobook! Soooooo Good!!!!!!

I was immediately inspired by Wilbur, Orville, and their family values. Their dad was a
Bishop. There mother may have been shy but was a gifted 'fix-it' woman. There wasn't anything around the house that broke, that she couldn't fix. Wilbur and Orville credit their mother for their engineering talents. Don't you love it that these terrific guys credit their 'mother' for their creative curiosity and abilities?/!
Their father, a Bishop, encourage reading in their family. Go dad!
There wasn't indoor plumbing -- but there were many books in the house. If any of the children felt like staying home from school for a day, to stay home and read a book, it was alright with their father.
I couldn't get over the 'life-changing' story about Wilbur when he was smashed in the face with a hockey stick by a neighborhood bully.
Something about that story- ( his original plans for college changed instantly)...stayed with me (deeply), while engaged listening to the rest of this novel.

I'm soooo moved by these brothers and their accomplishments. This is seriously a fantastic book about two brothers - a sister - a mom - a dad - their integrity - from family - to business - their passions - their sense of humor - hard work - determination & dedication- - fascinating mechanics of aviation ( fly like birds), ...the historical moments were exciting.
The magnitude what they manifested....is miraculous.

I've been 'nutty-excited' about this book -- (a chatter-box to my friends) --for days!!!
Many details moved the hell out of me. ( and will move you too). Just think -- their work began in the little town on Kitty Hawk...( they slept in tents, shared a community with the mosquitos, and cooked their food over the open fire).

An outstanding enjoyable book about two brothers who became a world sensation. (with heart-connecting side stories)

As for the author,.....David McCullough, .... he is *Viva-la-TERRIFIC*!!!!!

Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,653 followers
July 1, 2015
This is a gem of a book. McCullough is one of my favorite history writers, and I think The Wright Brothers is one of his best works.

Wilbur and Orville Wright make for a fascinating story. Born in Dayton, Ohio, the brothers were so clever and mechanically gifted that it seemed they could fix or create anything. They became interested in human flight at a young age after playing with a toy helicopter, made from just a stick and some rubber bands. The guys read everything they could about flight and they studied birds obsessively, understanding that birds had a natural design that should be emulated.

McCullough tells stories about the boys' childhood, their strong relationship with their father and sister, their early attempts at gliders and flying machines, those famous first flights in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and finally of their international fame and travels.

My favorite stories were about how intelligent and determined the brothers were. They never seemed to give up hope that they would one day solve the problem of human flight. They kept modifying and improving their flying machines, and even after several crashes, the brothers insisted on continuing to fly. They never seemed afraid to go up in the air.

McCullough had access to hundreds of letters and diaries from the Wright family, and those passages were especially illuminating and enjoyable. In the acknowledgments, McCullough praised the Library of Congress for its collection, and wrote: "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."

I knew little about the Wright brothers before reading this book, and now I'm so keen on them that I want to visit that famous beach in Kitty Hawk, and to see the museum that has their bicycle shop, which is where they did so much of their inventing.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in history or aviation.

Favorite Quotes
"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."

"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."

"On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern 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."
August 11, 2022
No one, I am convinced, could write a non fiction book like David McCullough. He research was impeccable and he weaves the facts into a widely interesting view of our history.

I really always walk away from his books with knowledge, things I didn't know or realize. Of course, I knew of Wilbur and Orville Wright. They were the pioneers of flying and when we look up to the sky and into space we can witness the result of their brilliance, tenacity, and spirit.

Never men to give up despite many setbacks, where even severe injury could not keep them from their mission, this was a story of couage, of the American spirit that lived years ago, to never give up and to fight on.

Through this book, I learned who these men and their sister were. They were no longer a page in a history book, but became real and inspirational in my mind.

We will miss the storytelling of David McCullough and all he accomplished in his brilliant lifetime. He was a man of honor, integrity, and gifted with the ability to make history come alive. RIP Mr McCullough!

Profile Image for Angela M .
1,286 reviews2,205 followers
May 12, 2015

I don't read a lot of non fiction , but I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to read this book which tells the story of how two men changed the future. Having read David McCullough's John Adams, I knew that I would get an education at the very least .

Two of the chapter titles so aptly reflect what Wilbur and Orville Wright were all about - "The Dream Takes Hold" and "Unyielding Resolve". Their ingenuity, perseverance, thirst for understanding of the scientific aspects of a flying machine was fascinating even I don't understand aerodynamics.

They were in the printing business and the bicycle business before their attempts to fly . They read books and pamphlets and studied birds and what others before them had attempted and worked on for years . "A friend told Orville that he and his brother would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantages could get ahead in the world." Orville responded "But it isn't true to say that 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."

What was missing for me was a little more of the personal . McCullough does give a glimpse of their childhoods and their family relationships with their father and sister and the encouragement, but it was hard for me to connect with them on that personal level. In spite of that, it was a compelling read to see their progress and ultimately what they achieved .

Those interested in life changing historical achievements , in aeronautics or are fans of David McCullough will enjoy this book. The meticulous research that is that hallmark of this great historian is evident in the numerous source notes and extensive bibliography .

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley.
Profile Image for Jay Schutt.
250 reviews82 followers
March 4, 2022
A masterful work by one of my favorite historical authors. It is a testament to the Wright's and their impact on history.
McCullough captured the tenacity and ingenuity of the brothers who conquered the problem of man and mechanical flight so well.
Extensively researched and loaded with pictures, this book is a must read for any lover of science, physics and flight history of the early 1900's in general.
Very well done and recommended.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,509 followers
September 13, 2016
A beguiling tale of how a rather ordinary pair of brothers invented the first successful airplane and thereby changed history. A wonderfully told story with a lavish picture gallery that I think most readers could appreciate. It leaves you with the illusion that if you have enough persistence you might achieve personal ambitions of your own that could prove important. Yet they have some combination of the “right stuff” at the right time and the right place that appears to be quite special and not easily replicated. McCullough does a great job in laying out these qualities and circumstances and conveys the wonder and magic that lies between the ingredients of a recipe and the kind of creation achieved by a master chef.

The setting of the Wrights’ origin is the industrial town of Dayton, Ohio, at the turn of the 20th century, which is blessed with a congenial combination of working and middle class families. Wilbur is 4 years older than Orville, but they are inseparable. Their father is a Protestant minister who takes over the management and editing of a national newsletter of the denomination. Their mother dies when they are young, leaving their older sister Kathleen to run the household. The family environment was very supportive of the brothers to fulfill whatever life they might seek. Calvinist moral principles of hard work, humility, and modesty prevailed, but strong expectations about religious practice were not enforced. Wilbur was accomplished in math and science in high school and might have gone to Yale if he hadn’t gotten laid up for a long time by a hockey injury. Orville was more playful and less studious, but he had ambition enough to start a local newspaper after high school. When that failed, he and Orville start a bicycle repair shop which advances to a small production operation. Kathleen goes to Oberlin and takes a position as a high school Latin teacher after she returns to the household.

Orville and Wilbur, inseparable as twins

Wilbur plants the seeds of their journey by sending away to the Smithsonian Institute for literature and resources about the science of flying and history of attempts at human flight. He was always fascinated by nature and curious about the methods by which birds achieve that capability. Their new hobby becomes fooling around making kites and gliders just for fun. Orville is engineer enough to conceive of a mechanism to change the shape of the wings and thus control lift. He seeks a setting where they have steady winds and a flat place without trees for safe testing of their evolving glider models. That’s how they ended up setting up a summer camp at Kitty Hawk on a sandy island of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Their limited financial resources and the challenges of weather, mosquitoes, and remoteness of the setting called for much sacrifice to attend to their obsession. Only a few members of the remote fishing community witnessed their early successes with gliders in 1990 and 1901. Orville’s correspondence with another enthusiast, Octave Chanute, a civil engineer in Michigan successful in hang-glider innovations, led to an invitation to give a presentation of their glider work at an engineering society in Chicago, which was the first step to outside knowledge of what they were beginning to achieve.

The instabilities in control their craft made Orville lament that they were 1,000 years from safe controlled flight. Their designs were hampered by inaccuracies in the equations to predict lift and drag. Orville led extensive efforts back in Ohio to use a homemade wind tunnel to make measures for various wing shapes, which led to better wing designs. With the added invention of the first moveable vertical rudder they achieved controlled glider flight (i.e. with turns and landings) in 1902, and, in 1903, with the addition of a motor and primitive props they accomplished the first well controlled flight of fixed-wing motorized airplane. Lateral roll was controlled by wing-warping, pitch (up and down motion) by a forward elevator, yaw (side to side)by the rear rudder. That sounds so fast, but it belies the thousands of launches they made, numerous failures and modifications, and occasional disastrous and costly crashes. They lucked out in having access to a gifted mechanic in their bicycle shop, Charlie Taylor, who devised and machined a lightweight gasoline engine to power their craft.

Controlled glider flights like this one by Wilbur at Kitty Hawk in 1902 represented the big breakthrough in airplane development. I am impressed with the craft's elegant design.

Somehow they took a licking and kept on ticking. Their particular teamwork in thinking seems to have been critical for their successful problem solving, the way they challenged each other, thrashed out positions in argument, then ended up persuading each other to move toward alternative viewpoints. The special skills they developed as pilots was almost as important as the technology for their long range success. That the two remained bachelors, a mystery in itself, contributed to their long range focus. Media coverage was minor, and the world at large remained ignorant of the milestones they made. Their 1903 patent application was rejected. McCullough provides tantalizing clues to their amazing perseverance:

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.

All this is only half the story. McCullough’s narrative makes an equally fascinating tale out of the years of effort it took the Wright brothers to create and demonstrate practical models, garner widespread appreciation and understanding of their accomplishment, and attract financing for commercial production. In a field outside Dayton, accessible by trolley car, they devised a derrick catapault and tested models that could accommodate a sitting pilot instead a supine one, turn in good control, and stay aloft as long as fuel permitted. Lots of people came to witness their feats, but what little local media coverage they got was distorted, and their success was disbelieved by the authorities that counted. The first accurate accounts were made by a beekeeper they befriended in his column in “Gleanings in Bee Culture.” Meanwhile, other aviation pioneers had some disastrous failures, including a killing crash by a French glider innovator and well publicized crash of an expensive, publicly funded attempt by the Smithsonian Institute on the Potomac River.

The Wright’s tried and failed to get the U.S. Department of War interested in a demonstration and sale but succeeded with government and private industry representatives in France. McCullough creates a great perspective for abstemious Wilbur travelling in style to France by a Cunard line ship, a stay at a first class hotel in Paris, and presentation of a convincing business case to investors and government military representatives. Though shy and prone to avoid public speaking, he was amazing in his articulateness and capabilities in expressing himself in writing. Money, power, and class did not impress him as much as competence and honesty. A hefty offer of a sale was rendered pending successful demonstration that met certain performance standards. However, the official aviation club snubbed him and cast doubt and insults in the media.

Orville remains quite a cipher as state of mind and feelings in this period can only be read between the lines in his terse letters home. McCullough, who has written another book about the charms of Paris, spends some time reflecting on his choices for leisure activities while there. Instead of monuments, festivals, night clubs, it is the gardens, opera, church architecture, and art museums which he most appreciated. A bit of a surprise to some for this provincial small businessman with a high-school education. He succeeds in securing a racetrack in Le Mans for a demonstration site, but he has to do a lot of engineering to repair and replace the plane after it arrives terribly damaged in its shipment. The demonstration amazed thousands and garnered full accolades from world media and the doubtful community of aviation peers and competitors. Orville initiated a parallel process of demonstrations at Ft. Myers, Virginia. Despite overall success, a prop failure led to a terrible crash which crippled him and killed a lieutenant assigned as passenger on the flight.

After the family recovered from the disaster, more demonstrations in France, England, and Germany were pursued, a patent was awarded in 1906, and many lucrative contracts ensued. Ideas for use of planes grew fast, with postal delivery and military reconnaissance among the first. The dream of humans conquering the flight of birds was fulfilled, and the harnessing of air travel for innumerable benefits was at hand. An uplifting and human story told well. Kind of makes one proud to be human and to appreciate the American capacity for ingenuity.
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,459 reviews105 followers
February 10, 2018
I hate to admit it but I never knew much about the Wright brothers beyond the basic story of their invention of the "flying machine". Now that I have finished this well done biography by one of my favorite historians, it appears that there wasn't much to know about them in the first place. Their whole lives were dedicated to the premise that man could fly and that they were going to find the secret. They had very few friends, no lady friends, no hobbies, were secretive, shy, and as close as identical twins. Their great talent was mechanical and they started with bicycles. Once they built the best bicycles on the road, they turned their eyes to the idea of flight. And history began.

Man had flown in hot air balloons but this was not what Orville and Wilbur were trying to achieve.....they wanted a machine driven by an engine that could be controlled by the operator and could perform turns, dips, fly at different altitudes and speeds and land safely. They looked for the perfect place to work in isolation and that had the geographic features necessary for their project. They decided on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in those days a practically deserted area of the United States, and built their workshop. Their work ethic was almost supernatural and errors and accidents were quickly overcome as their determination grew. And on December, 17, 1903, Orville Wright and his Flyer 1 took to the air. He only flew 120 feet in 12 seconds but it was a turning point in history.

The book follows the perfecting of the flying machine, the world-wide acclaim of the Wright brothers and their invention, and the aviation work of others such as Glenn Curtiss and Louis Bléroit (which often resulted in legal suits over patents). This is a short book, especially for one written by McCullough, but it covers in detail the work and dedication of the Wright brothers which changed the world. But you will not find out much about the brothers themselves since there isn't much to know....their lives were aviation and all else was just incidental. Recommended.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,691 reviews451 followers
August 16, 2016
How did two brothers without any funding or engineering education become pioneers in aviation? David McCullough answers that question in his superb book, "The Wright Brothers". Wilbur and Orville grew up in a family that loved learning. They were also very intelligent, focused, persistent, and hard working. The brothers owned a bicycle shop, possessed exceptional mechanical ability, and designed their own bicycles. They were interested in flight, and gazed at birds for hours to study how wings were tilted to catch the air before they set up their first experiments. They had caught the spirit of invention that was prevalent in America at the turn of the century.

In 1900, they flew their first glider which was funded from sales of their bicycles. In 1903, the first motorized plane carrying a pilot was flown on the sandy Outer Banks of North Carolina. The brothers not only built the plane, but also had to build a shed for storage and housing, and dig a well to obtain fresh water. They faced dark swarms of mosquitoes, sandstorms, and freezing temperatures in the Outer Banks. They risked their lives, and Orville was seriously injured in 1908. France was the first country to embrace the Wright brothers, and a good portion of the book is about their work there.

The book includes many photographs, and quotes from letters from the brothers to family and others. In addition to being a good historian, author David McCullough is also an exciting storyteller. He really brought the personalities and endeavors of the Wright brothers alive for the reader.
Profile Image for Karen.
17 reviews23 followers
August 8, 2022
I loved this book. I was completely oblivious about the amazing lives of Wilbur and Orville Wright. This book should be required reading for every high school student in the US.
Edit: Heartbreaking news. I just heard David McCullough passed away today. Truly a treasure.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,737 reviews1,469 followers
June 14, 2020
What You Get is Very Good, But I Wanted More

Another very good book by David McCullough. I have yet to read a book by this author that doesn't make history fascinating.

Aeronautics isn't a topic that draws me, but McCullough had me thinking about the miracle of flying. He had me observing birds with a different eye.

This is a relatively short book. That covered is that which a "normal reader" will want to know. There isn't a whole lot about the Wright Brothers' childhood, neither the patent lawsuits that arose after their accomplishment was a fact. The central focus is the years between 1899 and 1912, and how they came to be the first to ever fly. 1912 was the year of Wilbur’s death, and I am not going to tell you more about that. The book briefly skims major life events of all family members through to their respective deaths. Orville died in 1948. The wide scope of advancements in aeronautics is scarcely even mentioned. The focus is Orville and Wilbur's flying achievement. You get a detailed picture of their world - in Dayton, Ohio, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and in Paris and Les Mans and Pau, France. Wilbur spent almost an entire year in France. In 1903 the brothers had flown and by 1906 the sale of the airplane had begun. What the book well draws is the excitement and incredulity of man being able to fly, and it looks at how these two brothers did this. The two brothers are, in my view exceptional people, not really for what they achieved but for their steadfastness, their determination and hard work. Both had only a high school education and they financed their work on the sales from their bicycle company! They were not backed by big money! Others were, and they failed. For me the book imparted a clear picture of the personality of the two brothers, their father and their younger sister Katherine. She too was part of their team. I appreciated that McCullough took the time to elucidate her role.

I very much enjoyed the quotes from the brothers’ letters and speeches. I loved Wilbur’s heartfelt response to his reception in France. I loved the small details describing people; sometimes it is the unbuttoned button of a jacket or a shamrock in a buttonhole. McCullough’s works are not just well researched but that which is put there in the book is interesting. He doesn’t throw too much at you; he sifts through what is important, relevant and amusing, so you see the people and the times.

BUT…..I close the book with some questions. I want to know more about Wilbur's, Orville's and Katherine's childhood years, and more about their older siblings. I want to know more about the split between Orville and Katherine after her marriage in 1926 with Henry Joseph Haskell. I want to know how it came to be that the children were not religious; their father, Milton, was a Bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. What the book gave me was very good, but I would have been pleased with more, more biographical details. I wonder if some of the less complimentary personal characteristics are not here?!The emphasis is on their flying achievement. I do though have a mania for biographical details. You might be satisfied with a little bit less rather than more!

The author narrates his own book. I liked the narration, because it is very slow. That may not please others. Sometimes he mumbles a bit, but heck I understood. I could feel when he wanted to emphasize the importance of an event. You could almost hear the thought, "Hey, pay attention!" I felt he wanted to give me time to absorb all the details and the importance of what was being said. So, I personally liked the narration very much.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,742 reviews2,268 followers
December 28, 2015
"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.'"

Growing up, aviation was pretty much everywhere I looked. My father was a pilot, my mother had been an Airline “Hostess” prior to their marriage, within the small two-block neighborhood we lived in were many other pilot families. I had heard discussions about the Wright Brothers often enough throughout my childhood.

Although many years from being born, let alone old enough to fly when the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, my father recognized their place in aviation history, their place in his history. While we did attend church on Sundays, the real church in our lives was the church of flight. I thought I had heard all, or at least most, of the stories to be told.

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough tells their story, two brothers who looked for the way around every roadblock instead of stopping. McCullough has written an interesting and inspirational biography of the Wright Brothers, including family, with an emphasis on their belief that simplicity, intellectual curiosity, drive and determination were core values that should be instilled at a very young age.
Profile Image for Max.
343 reviews309 followers
February 6, 2017
A quintessential American story told by the master of historical narrative. We are carried along with Wilbur and Orville as they ply the skies in their magnificent flying machine. We can feel the excitement and astonishment of the crowds as they watch. We witness the years of planning, preparation and hard work that led to their success. The ingenuity, zeal, vision, determination and attention to detail exhibited by this pair are amazing and just a few of the accolades that could be used. An inspiration and a page turner. Recommended for everyone.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,536 followers
November 19, 2015
This is an excellent book about the inventors of the airplane. David McCullough is a great admirer of the Wright Brothers. He mentions, over and over again, how passionate and single-minded they were. They focused on their purpose; to develop the science of aeronautics to the point where flight would become possible. They worked very very hard, all day long, under less-than-optimal conditions. I did not realize that for a few years they flew only gliders at Kitty Hawk, before attempting to use an engine for powered flight.

Both of the Wright Brothers were detail-oriented. They had to be, because the alternative would have been failure or worse; fatal. When they gave demonstrations of their inventions, they did not give any thought about the celebrities or leaders in the spectator stands; if conditions were unfavorable, they would just pack the airplane back into the hangar, and wait for more favorable winds.

Wilbur was a true Renaissance genius. He had a broad range of knowledge about virtually every subject. And Orville was mechanically brilliant. Over the course of several years, the two of them developed the science and their inventions; living for months at a time under primitive conditions at Kitty Hawk, their activities and materials cost them a total of about one thousand dollars. They did not really care about fame or fortune. They did, however, care that they receive proper credit as the inventors of the airplane, and protected their interests through patent lawsuits. The book also discusses their sister Katherine, who was indispensable to their journey.

Their flights were risky; any number of components could malfunction, leading to a crash. They were reluctant to take passengers who were national leaders. In fact, they were reluctant to fly together, lest a crash would kill them both without someone to carry on their work.

After reading this book, it is hard not to be extremely respectful of the amazing dedication of the Wright Brothers. David McCullough has done an excellent job of helping us understand the brothers and their family. I listened to this book as an audiobook; the author is the narrator, which is a bit unfortunate. He is not a bad narrator, but he does not bring a polish to the reading, either.

Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,492 reviews9 followers
December 20, 2016
"On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in Southwestern 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."

This was a very thorough bio of Orville and Wilbur, read by the author, the incomparable David McCullough. Their story is already well known if you studied them at all in school, but McCullough was able to add some dimension to the brothers and to their family members and those who had any effect on them in their years in business. I'm not a big fan of bios or non-fiction, so this was a bit dry in parts; but it made me realize what great, honest men they were, how hard they worked for all they achieved, and how well-deserved that 1969 tribute to them on the moon was.
Profile Image for SimitudeSims.
94 reviews20 followers
March 9, 2020
Thank God it did pick up. It was a very good informational book about the Wright Bros, but it was similar to a history book. Don't get me wrong, I love history books, but you have to be interested in the subject or it's like being back in school. If you are interested in this subject, I think you would enjoy this book.
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,769 reviews133 followers
July 16, 2021
“The Wright Bros” penned by David McCullough is simply a masterpiece for all times.

The achievements of the hardworking Wilbur and Orville Wright may be the most significant in the history of humankind.

The story has a wonderful pace. Not too fast like a spy novel or slow like a technical book. We jump in the stream on the first page and flow with the story until the end.

The book is meticulously referenced and loaded with a multitude of pictures. It is

Brought to life with family correspondence, records, and McCullough’s research into the era and time.

I loved this masterpiece by McCullough a master storyteller.

My highest recommendation

Profile Image for Jimmy Reagan.
797 reviews29 followers
April 23, 2015
He’s still got it. David McCullough, a favorite for many of us, weaves another powerful tale. I’ll confess in my looking forward to his next book that I was disappointed when I saw the press clippings for it some months ago. I wanted another John Adams or 1776. I don’t feel that way after actually reading the book. In the hands of this master writer, we learn both how important and interesting were Wilbur and Orville and how revolutionary flying was when they brought it about. I don’t believe anything in my lifetime has equaled taking to the skies in the early 1900s.

Wilbur and Orville were unique. Never showing any interest in getting married, never afraid to go their own way no matter what anyone else thought, and never deviating from the raising of their preacher father, they do not fit the common mold. Dismiss out of hand any comments that the characterizations here are one-dimensional. The Wright brothers simply do not fit the modern mold especially. Mr. McCullough obviously felt no need to manufacture some speculations that tantalize our generation. He just gave us the Wright brothers as they were. I enjoyed getting to know them and have nothing but respect for them. The saw the prize out ahead of them and never rested till they had it.

The setbacks, the hardships (Kitty Hawk was not pleasant then), the secrecy when fame was dangling in front of them, the danger, the crashes, the occasional family drama but unwavering devotion–the story never sags. The competition with others trying to get the title of first to truly fly was always part or the story. The initial reluctance of the U.S. to show interest while France was ready to embrace them is interestingly portrayed. You admired the brilliance of these amateur mechanics as you read and are amazed at the mathematical and scientific ground they covered in their relentless research.

This volume can proudly take its place on the hollowed bookshelf of Mr. McCullough’s writings. Another piece of our history is now preserved with distinction.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.
Profile Image for Joel.
110 reviews50 followers
June 10, 2020
This was the first book of David McCullough I read, and I am now a devoted fan. His writing is clear and direct, yet he respects his readers by not talking down or attempting to be amusing. He gives sufficient detail without getting boring. I would have likes slightly more background information about the cultural context of the age and other characters, such as Lilienthal, Chanute, Flint, Curtiss, and a few others, but I appreciated that the book was not too lengthy. Richard Rhodes does this effectively in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but that is a hard act to follow, and honestly, that book was too long. I also liked that McCullough is very transparent about his sources and makes it clear when he’s quoting letters, articles, and so on. The pictures were also nicely chosen. Overall, this is historical non-fiction as it should be done, and I will definitely be reading his other books.
Profile Image for happy.
303 reviews94 followers
October 28, 2015
In my opinion Mr. McCullough has once again delivered a solidly researched and very readable look at an important figure, or in this case figures, in US history. In his look at the Wright Brothers, the author basically focuses on the 15 years between 1895 and 1910. These are the years of the brothers developed an interest in flight, proved their concepts, and then concluded a very successful tour of Europe, demonstrating their mastery of the air.

In telling their story, Mr. McCullough also looks at their close family ties, especially with their sister Katherine. As lifelong bachelors, she basically ran their home life and lived with them until her marriage quite late in life. After the marriage Orville refused to have anything more to do with her and even refused to attend the ceremony. Their relationship with their father is also explored, although not to the same extent as with their sister. However personal stories are a very minor portion of the book.

The main focus is their invention of powered flight and its aftermath in their lives. In fact the story of the first heavier than air powered flight actually comes quite early in the narrative, about 1/3rd mark. Their selection of Kitty Hawk for their experiments is explained and the fact that at the time of the first flight was the brothers 4th annual trip to the site. Each year they brought an improved glider to test the control system among other things. I found the story of Wilber’s first trip interesting. It was a 2 day trip by a broken down sailing ship and he was seasick most of the way. Another example of their resourcefulness is the story of the development of the engine for their first airplane. The put out a Request for Proposal for an engine and didn’t get any satisfactory responses. So with the help of one of their employees at their bicycle factory, they designed and built their own.

In telling the story of the invention of powered flight, Mr. McCullough illustrates the methodical way the Wrights worked. While both were high school drop outs, they were mechanically gifted and have a good grasp of mechanical principles. Their study of birds and how they controlled their flight led to their development if wing warping. He also mentions their development of a homemade wind tunnel to test the wing designs.

In additions to the Wrights, the author also looks at who was doing what in the race for powered flight. He does a pretty good job of telling Samuel Langley’s story. According to the author he was the Wrights main completion for the title of the first man to make a powered flight.

The reaction to the news of the first flight was enlightening – almost none. When they wrote to the US Gov’t, the reaction seemed to be, “That’s nice. Prove it.” It seems it took a few months and some demonstration flights in Dayton for the news to sink in.

The last portion of the book covers the Brother’s trips to Europe in 1908, 1910 on what were basically business trips. They were trying to interest European Gov’ts and esp their militaries in their invention. The author does a good job of telling the enthusiastic reception they received, both in England and in France.

While they were relatively successful, they didn’t become wealthy. Mr. McCullough states that when he died in 1912 Wilbur left an estate of appox $120,000 and when Orville died in 1948 his estate was valued at just over $1 million. As Mr. McCullough says, they were well-to-do, but not really wealthy.

All in all a very solid read, but not extensive. At just over 260 pages there is a lot left unsaid and for this reason I “only” rated 4 stars on Good Reads.
Profile Image for Daniel Greear.
236 reviews9 followers
June 10, 2019
“On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern 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.”

David McCullough is the greatest living American historian. His books are wholesome, enjoyable, and make one swell with pride over the stories of America. “The Wright Brothers” is a testament to the brothers who changed the world for the better by becoming the first men to construct and fly an airplane.

They were sons of a preacher and owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. They were in every way average citizens in a very average part of the country, but they had drive and determination to fly. The government funded Smithsonian project failed while the brothers, who spent a fraction of the cost and used their own savings, accomplished what the bigwigs could not.

Neither ever married and both refused to work on the sabbath. Neither drank, smoked, or gambled. They failed many times and were both nearly killed on at least one occasion. They camped out in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, far away from home and in horrid conditions, and finally accomplished what no one had done before in December 1903, and they changed the world, becoming heroes.

This is a great American story. The Wright Brothers are a great example of the American dream and the beauty of American progress. If you leave people alone and to their own devices, great things will be accomplished. Sixty-six years after the first flight, we put a man on the moon. Think about how fast technology advanced because of these brave men, who risked everything and made the world a better place.
Profile Image for Audrey.
1,030 reviews164 followers
December 19, 2022

The book is inspiring and written in an easy-going manner. I never found it too technical nor felt it delved into unnecessary tangents. The book focuses on the brothers’ lives in connection to machine (“heavier than air”) flight. I knew very little before listening to this book.

The boys were raised to be self-reliant, intellectually curious, respectful, and honorable: I couldn’t help admire how they never flew planes on Sunday and despised dishonesty. Their persistence to try and fail over and over is inspiring. The book also gives time to the brothers’ baby sister, a smart woman in her own right. (There were also two older brothers who settled down and had families.) I recently learned I am a distant cousin to them; I would have liked to meet them.

The audiobook is narrated by the author, which I don’t think was a good idea. He’s not bad, but you can tell he’s just reading it. And, having reached senior citizenship, he has lost his ability for clear diction.

Clean content
Profile Image for Skip.
3,288 reviews395 followers
June 9, 2016
Amazing story of Orville and Wilbur Wright's intrepid efforts to create human flight. Their creativity, ingenuity, perseverance, and thirst for knowledge and understanding was truly remarkable, starting with a letter to the Smithsonian asking for references and their intense study of birds.

McCullough's research is impeccable, from their bicycle designs to their efforts to find the ideal location for testing (desolate, windy Kitty Hawk), following their triumphs and setbacks, having to find support overseas as the U.S. thought others had a better chance to succeed. Their single-mindedness and dedication is nicely supplemented by stories of string friendships wherever they went.

Parts of the story were a bit dry or slow, which is why I did not give 5 stars.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,177 followers
January 23, 2020
When you open a McCullough book you know what to expect: fine prose, strong storytelling, and inspiring stories of American heroes. That is his domain, and he is the master of it. This book about the Wright brothers exemplifies all of these virtues in just over 300 pages. The audio book in particular, narrated by McCullough himself—whose folksy and yet erudite speaking voice encapsulates his ethos—is perhaps the most concentrated form of McCullough that you can imbibe.

Like many people, I was surprised at how little I knew about the Wrights. My hazy impression of their story was thus: The brothers were eccentric bike mechanics who, through a series of trial and error, managed to make some primitive flying machines, devices that could putter a few hundred feet and lift a few dozen feet off the ground. This is quite wrong. The Wrights approached the problem of flight with remarkable dedication and care. They read all the scientific literature they could find; and they performed careful experiments, documenting each step of the way. Their final product was not just some clumsy motor-powered kite, but a sophisticated machine capable of crossing the English channel and flying over the Eiffel Tower. Their creative vision was matched only by their persistence and perfectionism.

The story of the Wrights is legitimately inspiring. Having no special resources, no roadmap, no background, no support, they were able to succeed where so many other famous and wealthy inventors failed. They endured countless setbacks, both in the research and development of their craft and then in achieving recognition for their accomplishments. But in the end, two modest men from Ohio profoundly changed human life. It is a testament to their tenacity as much as to their intelligence.

It is difficult to criticize McCullough, because he does so perfectly what he sets out to do: show us how people in ordinary circumstances accomplish extraordinary things. But of course, this requires minimizing or even ignoring many aspects of a story that would attract other writers. One prominent example of this is the Wrights’ personalities. McCullough portrays them as dignified and diligent, representatives of an old-fashioned work ethic, unconcerned with fame or fortune. But in the hands of another biographer, the Wrights might not come across as so perfectly admirable. To me, they seemed curiously aloof, distant, and even repressed. The fact that Orville flew into a rage when his sister got married, for example, seems to be worth more investigation than McCullough is willing to give it. He dismisses the long estrangement as one of Orville’s “moods.”

Reading McCullough is a bit strange in today’s political climate. He was never concerned with being cutting-edge; but now more than ever he feels distinctly like a holdover from another era. As is commonly observed, American life has become deeply divided; so McCullough’s mission—to write about universally admirable Americans—seems especially quixotic. Yet McCullough’s reputation appears to have survived the late polarization relatively intact. And I think that is a good thing. True, it is wise to be wary of national mythologizers. But for the life of me I cannot find anything to trouble my conscience or divide the nation in the figures of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,076 reviews711 followers
March 29, 2018
David McCullough can always be counted on to turn history into an interesting story. This book brings the Wright family dynamics and personalities to life.

The brothers really did work hard on their project. One of the things they learned after finding that their glider's flight was unstable is that all existing literature of the time about wing design was little more than guess work. The Wright brother designed their own wind tunnel and tried out numerous configurations before they came up with a wing design for stable flight.

The comparison of the Wright brothers' work with the efforts of Samuel P. Langley of the Smithsonian is a classic David versus Goliath tale. Langley with government funding managed to spend $70,000 on flights that did little more than flop into the Potomac. The Wright brothers using inexpensive materials and technology learned from building bicycles to accomplish powered flight for a total cost of about $1,000. One of the biggest differences between the two endeavors is that the Wright brothers had a machinist friend who in retrospect was a genius craftsman. He was able manufacture a light gas powered internal combustion engine to use on the flying machine in about six weeks. Langley's engineers in contrast took years to do the equivalent.

This book goes into more detail about their time spent in Europe than any other source I've read. The European governments were more interested in (and willing to pay for) flying machines than the Americans. In retrospect they were visiting Europe during the prosperous climax of the Edwardian age a couple years prior to World War I.

The brothers spent much of their time in later years defending their patents. I guess we shouldn't be too critical of this because tech companies today probably spend as much money on patent defense as on technical research. The Wright brothers won all their contested patent suits.

Wilber Wright died at the relatively young age of 47 (of typhoid). With him gone and the death of their father soon after, Orville Wright and his sister Kathryn were left at their home in Dayton, Ohio. When Kathryn decided to marry an acquaintance from her College days Orville refused to attend the wedding or visit her afterward. Orville's behavior is regrettable, and I can't help but think that if Wilber had been living his presence would have ameliorated the family relationships.

The following book review is from the PageADay Book Lover's Calendar for March 27, 2018:
Wibur and Orville Wright were bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio. Neither of them had a college education or much money, but they had a lot of ingenuity. Together they risked their lives in the first attempts at human flight—and their success paved the way for the future of airplanes. David McCullough brings empathy and a sense of wonder to the Wright legend, and also reveals the crucial role that their overlooked sister, Katherine, played in their story. This inspirational biography is terrific from beginning to end.
THE WRIGHT BROTHERS, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2015)
Profile Image for Petra.
1,123 reviews12 followers
September 1, 2016
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I don't have a particular interest in aeronautics so am hazy on any details of the subject.
I found the Wright brothers to be a delightful duo and their family to be solid and interesting. The brothers had an unconventional upbringing in that they were allowed to follow their interests and encouraged in their endeavours. They were such a solid, down-to-earth family as well. It was really nice to read about a family that supported each other.
The brothers were genius. They must have been. Without specialized education or funding, they made the most marvelous invention. Everything about aeronautics was unknown. What they discovered over the course of about 10 years was amazing.
This book covers the years of about 1900-1912. McCullough tells a story with detail and interest. This story reads easily, like a novel.
I started by listening to the book on audio, which is narrated by the author. I really enjoyed his rendition and tone. This story lends itself really well for the audio format. I listened to 1/3 of the book in this format.
However, I only listen during my commutes and went on vacation. I wanted to continue so much that I picked up the print book. It was also an good experience. The writing style makes for an interesting read and the pictures are a fun addition.
Profile Image for Lori.
1,164 reviews34 followers
March 4, 2020
McCullough's biography of the Wright Brothers explores their fascination with aviation and the race to be first to create a machine capable of flight. Although the brothers lacked a college education, their mechanical skills and their fascination with birds proved useful in being the first to fly. The brothers, from Dayton,Ohio, found a place in the Kill Devil Hills/Kitty Hawk area of North Carolina to test their machine. We all know what happened. Eventually the brothers found a place nearer home to continue their experiments although they returned to the Outer Banks a few years later. The book also deals with their work in Europe and with Orville's flight and crash in the Washington, D.C. area. Although most of the book reads well, some detail near the end becomes tedious. The book contained "hidden end notes" that I loathe.
Profile Image for Brina.
902 reviews4 followers
December 17, 2015
McCullough is a master story in my book 2nd only to DKG. Learned much of wright family in this captivating read.
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