THE WRIGHT BROTHERS, by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $30.
How much do you really know about the Wright Brothers? If you're like me, you probably have a vague outline of their story, gleaned from the history books of your youth: Orville and Wilbur Wight were a pair of Dayton, Ohio, bicycle mechanics who invented and flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Beyond that the details are hazy, as they so often are with the figures of American legend.
David McCullough's new book on the brothers brings them into sharper focus, and their story -- one of thoughtful study, rigorous scientific experimentation and calm persistence, founded on sober Midwestern values -- is worth knowing. McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of nine previous books, is the person to tell it.
Wilbur (born 1867) and Orville (1871) grew up in Dayton. McCullough writes, "They lived in the same house, worked together six days a week, ate their meals together, kept their money in a joint bank account, even 'thought together,' Wilbur said." Neither married; their family life centered on their father, a traveling United Brethren preacher, and their younger sister, Katharine, a schoolteacher. (Their mother died of tuberculosis in 1889.) McCullough makes much of the Wrights' "home circle" -- the backdrop that made their remarkable accomplishment possible.
Inspired by the experiments of German "glider enthusiast" Otto Lillienthal, the brothers would begin a course of study -- observing the flight of birds and reading systematically -- that led to their flying experiments at Kitty Hawk, chosen for steady winds and sand beaches that promised soft landings. There, on Dec. 17, 1903, after three years of painstaking work, Orville was at the controls of their motorized 605-pound Flyer for that first, 12-second flight, immortalized in a photograph.
McCullough charts the ups and downs of the Wrights' course, through the many refinements they continued to make to their machine. He follows them across the Atlantic to France, where Wilbur gave demonstrations to a skeptical public in 1908. The French were easily won over. "The crowd was ecstatic, cheering, shouting, hardly able to believe what they had seen," McCullough writes, and the brothers became hugely popular celebrities. "Both remained notably modest," he observes.
McCullough brings to the story an attention to detail and no-nonsense tone that the Wrights' themselves would have admired. That tone comes through clearly on the audiobook (S&S Audio, $29.99), narrated by McCullough, sounding like a professor emeritus at perfect ease with his material, much of it drawn from the Wrights' own papers. "Seldom did any of the Wrights -- father, sons, daughter -- put anything down on paper that was dull or pointless or poorly expressed," McCullough writes. The same can be said of the author.