Wright Brothers' biographer talks about their passion and persistence

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 10:49pm
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As David McCullough tells the story, it wasn't the Wright brothers; it was the Wright family. Wilbur was the genius. Orville was the fellow flyer, mechanic and entrepreneur. Sister Katharine was the glue that held the family together. The father, Bishop Milton Wright, was the preacher-patriarch who laid the foundation for it all.

In McCullough's new book, The Wright Brothers, he goes beyond the Wilbur and Orville story to document a family circle of four extraordinary people. In one sense, McCullough's task as a biographer was smooth. The Wright brothers, who invented and flew an aircraft for the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, were indefatigable letter writers. They left an account of their adventures from Ohio to France and back.

In another sense it was not. The brothers, self-taught bicycle mechanics-turned-inventors, were not emotional fellows. Only in expressing the thrill of first flight did Wilbur ever describe transcendence. The brothers never married, and there was never a hint of a romantic involvement in their letters. They first achieved fame in France, and accounts of those triumphs were published in French. What they did have was focus, with a capital F, and McCullough's book is a case study in the concentrated energy of genius. The author, 81, talks to Mary Ann Gwinn about the enigmatic Wright family.

When did you first think of the Wright brothers as subjects for a biography?

I was working on my book ( The Greater Journey) about Americans in Paris in the 19th century. I didn't know when (chronologically) I was going to end that book, and who do I run into in France but the Wright brothers. I was delighted to find that Wilbur, at every chance, went to the Louvre to look at paintings, and the degree that he was moved by the great Gothic works of France was far beyond that of an ordinary tourist … It's important to convey now, when so many people are dismissing the liberal arts or skirting around them … [that] the Wright brothers, who accomplished one of the greatest technical achievements of all time, achieved what they did by reading widely and deeply. Much of what has been written about the Wright brothers [in French] has been ignored. That's what pulled me into doing the book.

The brothers, particularly Wilbur, seemed to have extraordinary powers of concentration. Where did they get that from?

Some of it may have been hereditary. Their father had a lifelong sense of high purpose as a missionary and itinerant preacher. They were in the same spirit, not dedicated to God, but to achieving something they thought could be done. And they never gave up. They never gave up. They knew that you don't quit when things go bad; you learn from what went wrong. I think we don't know enough about how important the way you're brought up at home is on how you proceed through life. The way you're brought up is far more important than we realise. Their father was an exceptional leader, an inspiring force in their lives, as well as their mother, whose shyness was a serious handicap, as it was for Orville.

The brothers took their lives into their hands every time they flew. How did they square away the risk?

They thought it was worth it. They were excited about achieving something that never had been done before. One of the most important things to understand is that they didn't just invent the airplane, they also learned how to fly it. (Their first successful flight was in 1903.) Octave Chanute didn't do it; (Samuel) Langley didn't do it. The one who did it in Germany, (Otto) Lilienthal, got killed doing it.

Early on, they had a hard time getting the US government to recognise their efforts; it turned down their design without even seeing the aircraft. In France, they were heroes. Why was that?

I found that when no one in this country would take them seriously, the French took them very seriously. In France, it was part of the spirit of the wealthy playboy crowd. All those French aviators were people with a lot of money. It was like skydiving or skiing. They had the money to blow on exciting, dangerous things. The hardest thing to understand is why Americans weren't interested. A big cause of that was the failure of the Langley experiments (a US government-funded attempt at flight that ended in spectacular failure). The government didn't want to get caught up in a fiasco.

Was it hard to create a portrait of two people who weren't especially emotionally expressive?

In their way, they expressed an awful lot in their letters, including their humour and their ordeals. At the same time, they looked upon it as the happiest time of their lives. It wasn't the reaching the mountaintop; it was the climbing up. Wilbur had a lot of poetry in him, great feeling and intensity.

What's your next book? When is someone going to write a biography of you?

I wouldn't allow it. Someone might find out about my dark side (laughs). I've thought about writing my autobiography, about my adventures in history.

The Seattle Times