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Book review: The Wright Brothers - how an idea took flight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm

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How much do you really know about the Wright brothers, apart from what you gleaned from history books, that Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics who invented and flew the first plane at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina?

David McCullough's new book brings the siblings 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 books, is the person to tell it.

Wilbur (born in 1867) and Orville (1871) "lived in the same house, worked together six days a week … kept their money in a joint bank account, even 'thought together', Wilbur said," McCullough writes.

Neither married; their family life centred on their father, a preacher, and younger sister Katharine, a teacher. (Their mother died of tuberculosis in 1889.) McCullough makes much of the Wrights' "home circle", the backdrop that made their accomplishment possible.

Inspired by German "glider enthusiast" Otto Lilienthal, the brothers began 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 December 17, 1903, after three years of work, Orville was at the controls of their motorised 275kg Flyer for that first, 12-second flight, immortalised in a photograph.

McCullough charts the ups and downs of the Wrights' course, and follows them across the Atlantic to France, where Wilbur gave demonstrations to a sceptical public in 1908. The French were won over.

McCullough brings to the story an attention to detail and a no-nonsense tone that the Wrights would have admired. "Seldom did any of the Wrights - father, sons, daughter - put anything down on paper that was dull or pointless or poorly expressed," he writes. The same can be said of the author.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster)

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